When I was in New Zealand last month, I went to the Auckland Art Gallery. I love art for several reasons- it triggers an emotional response, that I, who reads and writes for a living often cannot express in words right away, it pushes me to explore my feelings, thoughts and reactions, and ultimately teaches me about myself. For my academic self, I am always interested in the how and the what. How does the curator use the space available, how is the lighting, down to the little descriptions- I am interested in ALL of it. What gets to go into a museum tells you a lot about what a society values or how they see themselves. When I visit a place then, I try to visit an art museum.
To my surprise, they had a Yayoi Kusama installation there. I had heard of Yayoi Kusama, but never got the chance to see/experience any of her art.
Yayoi Kusama was born in Japan in 1929. Her childhood was characterized by hardship, she described her mother as physically abusive and her father as a serial philanderer. At the age of ten, she began to have hallucinations, which she began to paint. She describes it as “starting to see the world through a screen of tiny dots”. During WWII, she had to sow parachutes in a military factory- at the age of 13, an incredibly traumatic experience. Discussing her time in the factory, she says that she spent her adolescence “in closed darkness” although she could always hear the air-raid alerts going off and see American B-29s flying overhead in broad daylight. (1) Early on, she underwent psychiatric treatment, and openly discussed her mental health. (2)
In 1955, Kusama moved to the United States. Her parents paid for her flight, on the condition that she’d never return to Japan. She lived and worked in the US until 1977, when she returned to Japan. Since 1977, she has been living voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital, creating incredible artwork. She recently opened her own museum in Tokyo.
Her work is versatile in several ways- it is not only spanning several genres (paintings, installations, novels, poetry, fashion, film), and touches on topics like feminism, pacifism, sexuality, the self, mental health or what we think of as normal.
So, back to MY experience- the obliteration room. When you enter, you’re given a sheet of stickers that has polka dots in popping colors and in every possible size. You enter what looks like an apartment- a table, a desk, a couch, windows- and you’re asked to put the polka dots on there. Clearly, we weren’t the first ones to enter, as most of the apartment was already covered in polka dots, and the floor was almost white again from the number of people walking on it. Smarter people than I have written about the meanings of polka dots, and while I have a few interpretations and thoughts on them (mostly on the personal vs the collective), I won’t bore you.
What struck me however, was the joy this room incited. People looked around for the perfect spot to put their dot on, played around with it, took photos. I saw families, I saw old people, just stepping into the room and instantly smiling. Not one frowny, critical face.
And I was intrigued. To have so much trauma in your early life, and to not only rise above it, but to soar. To return to the place that once cast you out, and open a freaking museum. To not only overcome the stigma of mental health problems, but to create spaces beyond dichotomies of sane/not sane, of healthy/unhealthy of right/wrong. For the fifteen minutes we were in there, we worked with others, we had fun, enjoyed the colors- we just were.
For this experience, I am forever grateful.
If you want to see a time loop of the empty to stickered out room, check this out: