It is not controversial to describe Yayoi Kusama as Japan's greatest living artist. Now almost 80, over the past 10 years she has gained an increasing recognition from the global art world. She has suffered from mental illness since childhood, but although this has proved a hardship, it is also a gift.
Since 1977, Kusama has lived in Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo. Each morning, she leaves the hospital and enters her studio where she begins work on a series of obsessive and repetitive paintings and sculptures.
Giant canvases – 6ft by 17ft – are covered with a net or spot pattern. She has filled rooms with thousands of phallus-type objects, hand sewn, covered in polka dots and reflected to eternity on mirrored walls. The designs have the disordered logic of a compulsive mind. She says they are born of the hallucinations she had as a child.
Kusama was born in 1929 to a traditional and prosperous Japanese family in Matsumoto City. "I started to concentrate on creating artworks when I was about five," she says. At age 10, dots appeared in her drawings. Her desire to be an artist was discouraged by her family. They tried to make her conform and offered her a series of arranged marriages, which she rejected, prompting an era of mental breakdown.
She eventually trained at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. Fascinated with America, she wrote to American artists and began a correspondence with Georgia O'Keefe. In 1957 she received a US visa and left for New York. Two years later she was offered an exhibition at the respected Brata Gallery.
As mental illness claimed her, she travelled back and forth between New York and Tokyo, where she received treatment. "I have been struggling with art with a seriousness that has almost buried me with my work," she says. "Everything about Kusama constitutes Kusama's art. I am too busy producing artworks to have a romantic relationship with any particular individual." She adds, "I love everybody on the Earth."
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