Over the past 50 years, artists, art historians and theorists have grappled with the politics, pain and pleasures of the body and its relationship with identity. Yayoi Kusama’s vast and richly provocative body of work has dealt with many of these issues. To say that Kusama's oeuvre is iconographically and stylistically varied is an understatement; alongside her complex character, it makes any singular analysis impossible. The presence of the artist’s body, and an embrace of the performative,1 however, connect this seminal artist's divergent practice and continue to colour her art today. It has been said of many artists that their art and lives are inextricably linked. This is true of Kusama in both a concrete and visceral sense:
Kusama is the Infinity Net and the polka-dot, two interchangeable motifs that she adopted as her alter ego, her logo, her franchise and her weapon of incursion into the world at large.2
The countless art works carrying Kusama’s nets and dots out into the world, when seen as a whole, are the outward result of a disciplined, single-minded performance that has lasted for more than 60 years.
Of particular interest are Kusama’s New York years, between 1958 and 1972, where she discovered the endless variation of her signature style played out across her own and other bodies (on film and in real time), in public parks, discos and museums, in the press, and even once or twice on television. During this period, Kusama produced a rich and powerful body of work that was prophetic of wider developments in performance and body art. This essay contextualises Kusama’s practice within this broader frame of reference. Performing the body as, or in, the work of art has been a rich vein in art over the last five decades, and by reappraising her art in these terms, recognition can be paid to Kusama’s undisputed position as an original force who continues to be incredibly influential on generations of contemporary artists.
During the twentieth century, the bodies of artists and others were increasingly used as both the object and the subject of art works. Bound or beaten, naked or painted, still or spasmodic: ‘the body is presented in all possible guises, as the artist quite literally lives his or her art either publicly, in performances or privately, in video and photography’.3 The age-old tradition of self-portraiture took a definite left turn, and performance artists were at the forefront of this move to take art outside the gallery into unconventional media and unexpected spaces. Barriers between art and life were torn down, as were boundaries between visual and sensual experiences. Kusama was a key artist of this turn, and among the most significant players internationally. She came to attention as one of a diverse coterie that included, in the 1960s, Carolee Schneemann, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Yoko Ono; in the 1970s, Chris Burden, Ana Mendieta, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović; and, up to the present, Matthew Barney, Yasumasa Morimura and Mona Hatoum. 4
The tumultuous 1960s was when many artists first began to literally live their art, both on their own and on other skins. In this way, gesture came to constitute art work and ordinary activities were elevated to the status of art. Since the body was presented as the form from which a work was made, the art often lasted only for the duration of the gesture, and the photograph the only lasting record of works that were, by design, ephemeral and transitory. The artist's dual role as object and subject, particularly in the United States and Europe, took on a renewed importance. Through 'happenings' and events, artists bridged the gap between themselves and the viewer — between acts of creation and reception — and audiences became indispensable participants in the enactment of art. 5 In this period, art carried something of a democratising impulse, a leaning which may be understood in relation to the politically countercultural thrust of the era:
. . . artists now began to produce scripts that could be enacted by anyone as 'art' to solicit rage, compassion and other emotions which would presumably break down the apathy and passivity promoted by corporate bureaucracy. 6
Kusama was at the forefront of these developments: with her gesturing bodies, she broke into the sphere of political actions with polka-dot performances and happenings. The atmosphere in New York at the time clearly had a seductive influence on her: through a combination of hectic activity and political campaigning with naked dancers, she agitated for the continued breaking down of boundaries. By issuing invitations and instructions which would literally lay her audiences bare, she sought to pacify the world with her proclamation ‘LOVE FOREVER’. At a time when the US–Vietnam War was raging and the Soviet Union marched on Prague, Kusama was 'dissolving herself in a proclamation of a deluge of love'. 7
During 1968 and 1969, Kusama staged events across Manhattan, from the United Nations Building and the New York Stock Exchange to the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park’s Alice in Wonderland statue. Frequently, these happenings involved Kusama working with groups of naked men and women covered with her signature polka dots and dancing on the streets, until inevitably they were forced to move along by the police. In one instance, at the Museum of Modern Art, which Kusama famously referred to as the ‘Mausoleum of Modern Art’, eight nude participants struck poses in the fountain of the museum’s sculpture garden. By this stage, the art press was familiar with the rhetoric of Kusama’s anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-establishment and free love happenings, however, this particular spectacle attracted front page coverage by the Daily News, who reported that museum security officers spent 20 minutes attempting to coax the performers out of the water. Kusama is quoted as saying, ‘what is modern there? . . . Van Gogh, Cézanne, those other ghosts, all are dead or dying. While the dead show dead artists, living artists die’.8
Kusama described these performances as ‘social demonstrations’, but their ‘thin veneer of progressive political rhetoric did not disguise the fact that their true agenda was Kusama’s symbolic philosophy with polka dots’.9 The artist has variously covered herself, others, objects and places in a veritable sea of dots in an attempt to deconstruct identity and let loose some form of a ‘true’ self. Yet, frequently, the presence of these dots obliterates identity altogether and, in the process, flattens out the body into mere surface for a swathe of pattern and repetition.