In Defense of Kusama's "Self": A Response to Phillip Kennicott

Yayoi Kusama,  Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli's Field , 1965/2016, Stuffed cotton, board, and mirrors (collection of the artist)

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli's Field, 1965/2016, Stuffed cotton, board, and mirrors (collection of the artist)

Despite long lines and restricted observation time, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” has captivated viewers virtually and in person at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The ever-growing public interest in immersive, dazzling art installations is fueled by the popularity of the celebrated artist, drawing vast crowds to experience and document the Infinity Rooms. The exhibition has been the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history by far and is a sensational and exclusive spectacle; still, the provocative and magical work of Yayoi Kusama leaves viewers stunned and infatuated, despite the herding. 

Infinity Rooms has been controversial for its blockbuster status and selfie indulgence, causing a general consensus that photography is fine as long as visitors mindfully experience the work. However, a recent review from the Washington Post by Phillip Kennicott fixated on the curator’s lack of attention to Kusama’s “mental illness.” Hardly a hot take, the argument for more emphasis on the clinical effects of Kusama’s hallucinations and obsessions has been addressed and rejected for many years by scholars and figures including Alexandra Munroe, curator of Kusama’s 1989 retrospective at the Guggenheim. This insistence on viewing the entirety of the artist’s creative process as a symptom of illness effectively reduces the power and agency seized by Kusama through her artwork and performance. As a result of broad interpretations of Kusama’s autobiographical writing and her vibrant personality, the artist and her psyche have been mythologized to the point that the political value of her work is largely ignored. Scholarship dedicated to the career of Yayoi Kusama began with an attention to the artist’s otherness: her Japanese-ness and her struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Depersonalization Syndrome. These specific conditions are condensed by Kennicott into “mental illnesses,” which is often the case in writing about Kusama’s now mythic psyche. At this point in the field of study, it is incredibly important to deconstruct previously reached conclusions. Essentially first introduced in “Painting, Feminism, History” (2001) by Griselda Pollock, Yayoi Kusama was described as one who “lived differentially across the wounds of class, race, gender and sexuality.” This intersectional approach is shared by Reuben Keehan’s article “Yayoi Kusama: TENACIOUS BEAUTY”:

“Assessment of the relationship between the artist’s illness and her work has shifted over the course of her career, both on the part of critics and historians, and by the artist herself. In addition to the argument that her visual motifs are attempts to picture psychic trauma, Kusama’s work is often thought to be a product of her obsessive disposition, which would account for its repetitive, labor-intensive character, as well as being a therapeutic outlet for her suffering…Whatever the case, illness provides an unstable framework for interpretation.” (1) 

In reality, Kusama was extremely in tune with not only her own role as a female Japanese artist in America but also the turbulent political environment of America in the 1960s and ‘70s. Hardly creating simply as a result of “personal condition and mental illness” as Kennicott fantasizes, Kusama found liberation and self-stabilization through radical visual artwork and performance. Participating and staging many protests and happenings involving the “sexual revolution,” feminist empowerment and anti-war sentiments, Kusama’s active and attentive feminism must not be overshadowed by a precarious “compelling personal story,” as Phillip Kennicott insists. (2)
While it seems that Kennicott did not take the time to review the work done by other writers in the field, he finds no issue in insisting that Kusama be “rigorously theorized,” despite embarrassingly scoffing at the “intellectualization” by Mika Yoshitake, a prominent scholar of Japanese modern and contemporary art. Instead, he condescendingly states “one can understand but not sympathize with the curatorial choice” not to emphasize Kusama’s psychological conditions, suggesting that the curators have shown some kind of mercy, and proceeds to praise Kusama for her lack of embarrassment in light of her publically known struggles. “Good for her,” he states, as he praises her rejection of “the interpretive language of others” (i.e. Western feminism). Kennicott’s argument to overwrite Kusama’s sophisticated artistic processes with vague assumptions of her hallucinatory mystique only serves to reduce the genius of this multi-faceted artist and dumb down an already rich field of study. 

In past efforts to direct attention to Kusama’s mental illness, critics have questioned whether or not she was consciously suggesting meaning or if she was in touch with reality at all. The arguments made in these articles are largely assumptions of her own thoughts and feelings, which is problematic for an article that relies on the facts of her psychosis. While there was impressive fame caused by the attention to her "'psychosomatic art,'" as argued by author Izumi Nakajima, "it established the artist as an enigmatic figure detached from social, cultural, political, and (art-)historical context." (3) 

Yayoi Kusama’s expressions of her mental experience must be addressed in scholarship, but it is important not to consider her artwork as a mere product of her psychosis, but her continual conversation with it within a greater context. As stated by Alexandra Munroe, the curator of Kusama’s 1989 New York retrospective:

“Kusama is not simply notating her madness; she is inventing an art to represent and reproduce it. Ultimately, her obsession is not focused on single images but rather on the repetitive production of a fantastic narrative that stars herself as object and subject, author and protagonist, artist and artwork”
 “Outrage against patriarchy and authority are, for example, basic to Kusama’s art. Her ambition for supremacy over men and over sexuality is relentlessly expressed in her repetitive and aggregate use of he phallus form, which can be interpreted as an aggressive will and fantasy to defy oppressive male power by possessing it symbolically herself.”

    In an attempt to gain a semblance of understanding of the artist’s incredibly mysterious and complex thought processes, many critics and scholars take her own words into consideration. While this approach is invaluable in the reading of her work, it risks bending the words of Kusama into the method of the author. Often used in articles which emphasize her psychosis over all else, interviews and autobiographies are misappropriated throughout the body of literature. However, Alexandra Munroe and Izumi Nakajima utilize the words of Yayoi Kusama to address her thoughts without stating a concrete “meaning” to them. Successfully encouraging attention how the artist considers her own artwork, Munroe placed essential importance on the life and words of the artist herself, who frequently referred to the Nets as "a psychological remedy as well as well as a symptomatic act caused by mental illness." (4) 

It is time to acknowledge that narrow analyses of Kusama’s work must be abandoned, especially as her popularity peaks. Perfectly summed up by Keehan, “all of these perspectives shed light on aspects of Kusama’s work, they are insufficient in isolation to account for the totality of her practice. Nor do they fit together particularly well; in combination, they often reveal more about the position from which Kusama is seen that they do about her art.” Kennicott has not only moved backward within the greater field of studying Yayoi Kusama, but also has revealed his position as someone who believes in a struggle for intersectionality yet damagingly insists that artists be defined by their otherness. This approach is very common in contemporary art criticism and curation, yet often ends up reinforcing oppressive paradigms that it claims to critique. Perhaps more frustrating than the reductive understanding of Kusama’s life and work is Kennicott’s lack of research, which could have granted answers to his quest to find Kusama’s “self.” Even the title of the review, “An exhibition of the beloved Kusama with everything but Kusama herself” casually asserts that the only “self” Kennicott finds valuable is one that is plagued by “mental illness.” 

Intersectionality is key when considering not only artists, but also addressing the field of art history and criticism itself. Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Nets are no exception. She is, on the contrary, exemplary.

(1) Reuben Keehan, "Yayoi Kusama: TENACIOUS BEAUTY," Flash Art International 45, no. 285 (July, 2012): 69.

(2) Keehan, 68.

(3) Izumi Nakajima, “Yayoi Kusama between Abstraction and Pathology,” Psychoanalysis and the Image, (Blackwell, Malden, MA 2006), 132.

(4) Alexandra Munroe, “Between Heaven and Earth: The Literary Art of Yayoi Kusama,” Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968, Lynn Zelevansky, (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1998), 131. 

EssaysAni Bradberry