By: Aharon Nissel  | 

On Creativity and Mental Illness: A Conflicted Appreciation of Yayoi Kusama

Walking through the new Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery, one begins to wonder if it is really accurate to describe these works as “new.” Sure, the collection contains pieces that are technically new creations and have never been exhibited before, but it felt more like a recycling of old ideas that have not actually been updated in any new or complex ways.

The Yayoi Kusama exhibition, titled “Every Day I Pray For Love,” opened to the public on Nov. 9 at the David Zwirner Gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It features a body of works that were created specifically for this show. This comes just two years after a considerably larger, hugely popular show at the Zwirner Gallery two years earlier, which drew 75,000 visitors in the 23 days it was open. The Zwirner Gallery is expecting this year’s show to reach 100,000 visitors. Walking through the exhibition, it was clear that they are trying to capitalize on the same hype that the previous Kusama show created. Unfortunately, because this show arrived so soon after the last one, it just feels rushed — almost like half a show. 

For example, while this show features 42 new paintings from the artist’s “My Eternal Soul” series, which cover just one wall, the previous one had 66, spread over four walls in a much more immersive presentation. These works were placed as they were to elicit the effect of walking into a space and being overwhelmed by the sight of an entire wall covered in these paintings. However, compared to last year’s collection of paintings, this one just seems halfhearted. These psychedelic paintings, all of which are squares with each side measuring exactly 100.3 cm, sort of resemble cells under a microscope, with bold colors and thick brush strokes. They feature names like “The Best of my Art Singing Everywhere the Infinite Beauty of Forms” and “A Hope for the Love of Blue and Orange Found Throughout the Universe.” The paintings are impressive: each is unique, each is — in its own way — mesmerizing. While each painting is different, they are all part of the same series — a series which now contains over 200 works. Perhaps each painting is uniquely meaningful to her (as evidenced by the overly expressive titles) but to everyone else, it’s starting to get kind of boring.

Another example — and this one is perhaps even more disappointing — is the new infinity room, titled “Dancing Lights that Flew Up to the Universe.” Kusama’s infinity rooms are perhaps her most well known works. Each room is a cube, a few feet by a few feet, and each wall is a mirror. Thus, the viewer, and everything else in the room, is reflected infinitely in every direction. These rooms have gained considerable popularity for their “instagrammability.” But the new room feels artistically weaker than the previous ones, which seem to be more complex, for example featuring hand-painted pumpkins or hand-sewn creations. This room is just a number of hanging lights that change color. Of course, the effect is still amazing and existential. It asks us to question our place in an infinitely expansive universe. It definitely works as a piece of art and viewers will take some epic selfies in the room, but compared to other infinity rooms, this one just felt simple. Moreover, wait times for the room tend to be over two hours, and the four viewers that enter the room at a time only get one minute in the room. Is your selfie worth a two hour plus wait for just 60 seconds in the room, which you share with three strangers?

That said, there were two works that I feel really stole the show. The first is “Cloud,” which consists of 90 metallic mercurial blobs arranged on the floor. These evoke the artist’s 1966 work, Narcissus Garden, in which the artist stood amongst 1,500 large reflective marbles with a sign that read, “Your Narcissum [sic] For Sale.” The field of balls reflected and distorted everything around it, including the viewers, who were forced to confront a distorted version of their own ego. Originally the artist sold the balls for $2 each, reflecting on the economic aspects of art production and commercialization. Cloud succeeds in taking this concept further. The mirrors are no longer so simple and conventional. Now they are amoebic blobs, that seem to ooze about space, despite being made of stainless steel. The effect is that the contorted confrontation with the viewers’ vanity is intensified. 

The other work, which also uses mirrors (it’s a theme in Kusama’s work — she wants us to confront ourselves, as we truly exist, in an infinite universe) is “Ladder to Heaven,” and it features a ladder comprised of neon bars that change color, wrapped in a metal cage. The ladder extends from the floor to the ceiling, and mirrors at each end make it appear to go on infinite. Looking at the ladder elicits a powerful effect on the viewer: we are on the ladder of the universe, as it were, and it extends forever in either direction. We are small and insignificant, but there is always light and hope. 

But who is Kusama really? And what is she getting at with all this? 

Yayoi Kusama is now 90 years old and is the most expensive female artist alive today. People wait for hours to see her works, which sell for millions at auctions. She explores big themes such as the universe, the cosmos and our place in it. Her major question in this exhibit, if we were to distill it into one question, is: how do we reckon with our complex creative identities — encompassing both biological and psychological aspects — while existing in a cold, dead, universe that operates far beyond what we think or do? Over her career, Kusama has also presented a lot of work that deals with sexuality, but this exhibition seemed to lack that theme. It makes sense that her works have gotten considerably more PG since she got famous, probably at the behest of whatever agents and curators want to capitalize on her art with a wider audience. In 1969, in one of the works that helped make her famous, she painted a group of nude models with polka dots and had them wander around the MoMA, unauthorized. In this show, none of her usual daring came through, and everything just felt muted. 

At age 90, Kusama, who is already of a shorter stature, is wheelchair confined. When she paints, a canvas is brought over to her and placed flat on a table before her. She paints, and then her assistants turn the canvas around so she can paint the other side. In some ways this mechanical means of art production deeply affects the paintings. The artist is severely limited in her role as a painter, as she does not have complete access to the entire canvas and thus cannot paint such large works. 

Kusama has long struggled from mental illness, and has lived in a mental hospital for over 40 years. Her mental illness has deeply affected her work. She paints how she feels, how she is. This should make audiences interact with her paintings in a more uncomfortable way: are we in fact romanticizing her mental illness? Is the Zwirner Gallery, and other galleries worldwide, just trying to take advantage of her for monetary profit? The answer, it seems to me, is an unequivocal yes.

There is a long history of the “mad genius” trope— the scientist, philosopher or artist who is clinically insane, but whose insanity somehow allows them to tap into some greater creative impulse and unlock the truths of the universe. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions and also spent time at a mental institution. It is there that he painted his most famous work, Starry Night. Mental illness actually inhibited his work, as it led him to be unable to paint for weeks on end. We have romanticised his mental illness and attributed his greatest works to his mental instability. 

This trope, creates a false and unhealthy view of what mental illness is and how it affects people. The notion of the crazed, tortured artististic-genius is false and delegitimizes their works. 

So, as you walk through the Kusama show, snapping selfies left and right (as you should), maybe it is time to think differently about her work. Of course, think about what she wants you to think about as you look at her works. Think about your place in the universe. Think about love, and emotion, and ego. Think about all the epic selfies. Think about Kusama as a real human, deeply flawed, and suffering, but also an artistic genius whose work has touched millions. And also, at least for a moment, think about how she might be getting used and abused by people who can make money off of her work.

Photo caption: Paintings from Yayoi Kusama’s latest exhibition
Photo credit: Aharon Nissel