Force of Life

Life, death and polka dot pumpkins: Yayoi Kusama at Guggenheim Bilbao
By Alex James Taylor | Art | 3 July 2023

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama, Couresy of Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro and David Zwimer

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao, red polka dots float in the water, coated in an ethereal cloud of mist. It must mean one thing: Yayoi Kusama is in town. If you think you know Kusama’s work (ie. you’ve seen her Louis Vuitton bags and taken a selfie in an Infinity Room), think again. The gallery’s groundbreaking new retrospective traces the Japanese artist’s disruptive and diverse career across nine incredible decades, offering a chronological and complete overview of her pioneering career like never seen before.

“I use my complexes and fears as subjects. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’” – Yayoi Kusama

Titled Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now and created in collaboration with in collaboration with Hong Kong gallery M+, the exhibition is guided by the existential questions that continue to drive Kusama’s creativity, thematically planned around six notions that recur throughout the artist’s work: Infinity, Accumulation, Radical Connectivity, Biocosmic, Death, and Force of Life.



The first room, Infinity, establishes a Kusama signature: infinity nets. The story goes that during the dark days of WWII, Kusama would look out at a stream behind her childhood house in Matsumoto, Japan, and see the hundreds of millions of white pebbles, each individual yet linked, creating this vast composition. The little dots became a manifestation of her obsessions and she would stare at them for hours. This idea of interconnectedness is essential to Kusama’s Infinity Net works, each formed by dots, squiggles and lines sprouting in their thousands, millions, creating looping, repetitive gestures without beginning or end. It’s here that you notice the secret behind Kusama’s polka dot motif, that the dots actually represent negative space and instead, it’s all about the net that exists between these circles. The repetitive nature of these Infinity Nets also acts as a mechanism the artist uses to control hallucinations she’s experienced since the age of ten: flashes of light, auras, dense fields of dots, flowers that speak to her and patterns that come to life.

Moving forwards, the second room greets you with a living room set-up made from sewn-stuffed fire gloves spray-painted silver. Fingers protruding from armchairs and sofas – it appears alive. This room focuses on Kusama’s groundbreaking soft sculpture work; she was one of the first artists to imagine sculptures in this way. Here, another piece simply titled Phallic Chair is just that, crafted with stuffed phallic shapes jutting out at angles all over – it looks like something Beetlejuice would own. These phallic shapes are important: Kusama felt great anxiety around sex and intimacy, so she repeats the motif as a form of control. “I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them,” the artist said in her autobiography. Throughout Kusama’s work, her fears become repetitive proliferations, created as a form of therapy and healing. In the corner of this room, sprouting, pointing tentacles – red and covered in black dots – create a dense forest symbolising vitality and regeneration.

Dotted mannequins meet you in the next room, Radical Connectivity. These polka-dot women are suspended in time, gathered around a polka-dot kitchen table and chairs with polka-dot homeware and cutlery. Here, the repetitive motif represents the notion of obliterating yourself in order to connect to one another, much in the same manner as the Infinity Nets. Look down and notice how the floor of this kitchen set-up is made of dried pasta, showing the way Kusama used store-bought food as part of many installations during her time in New York; upon moving to the US she was disgusted with the idea of eating the same things made by machines over and over again. (Museum BTS: it’s gluten-free pasta to stave off vermin, and it gets switched out and replaced with new batches of frozen pasta on repeat.)

Self-Obliteration , 1966-74

The fourth space is populated by otherworldly flora crafted from stuffed, painted fabric. Inspired by her family’s plant nursery, Kusama takes this plant life extra-celestial. These compelling forms are shown alongside Kusama’s incredible collage work, portraying imagery of nests and the moon, of fish swimming through ethereal waters and a screaming girl. This room also introduces Kusama’s pumpkins. An enduring motif throughout her career, for Kusama pumpkins represent a sense of self. When Kusama was a young girl, her grandfather was walking her through a big seed-harvesting ground when she spotted a pumpkin “the size of a man’s head” – “It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner,” said Kusama in her autobiography. Today, the pumpkin has achieved a semi-mythical status in Kusama’s work, becoming the artist’s alter ego.

The final two rooms – Death, and Force of Life – are interlinked, highlighting how Kusama works on the threshold between life and death. Growing up around seed farms and plant nurseries led Kusama to see death not as an ending, but as another phase of life where new life can emerge, and Kusama consistently uses her artwork as a positive output for her own struggles with depression and anxiety, believing that she can scare off illness by addressing death.

Atomic Bomb, 1954


In the room, Death, one work depicts the catastrophic casualty of WWII, while an abstract image of an atomic bomb addresses her country’s trauma – a taboo subject in Japan at the time, yet Kusama didn’t shy away from addressing such things. In the final room, Force of Life, visitors experience a burst of life, colour and optimism. This space features some of Kusama’s most recent, and technicolour, work – she has resided in a mental health facility since the 1970s, which she leaves daily to walk to her nearby studio to work, and has never stopped working. Inside this life-affirming final room, colourful amoebic forms, caterpillar characters and abstract faces populate paintings that evoke outsider art – patterns clash, forms co-exist, and messages of healing are spread. Two of her latest series are titled: My Eternal Soul, and Everyday I Pray for Love.

​​”This is a full scale, scholarly investigation into Yayoi Kusama,” says curator Doryun Chong. “One of the most celebrated living artists of all time, and an influential, global icon. We have endeavoured to provide the depth, breadth and layers that give justice to appropriately explain the longevity, the historic significance and the global reputation of this visionary artist’s practice and philosophy.

Kusama was born in 1929, which makes her now 94 years old, and she has never stopped working since she decided to become an artist. Just as the exhibition title suggests, this retrospective chronologically begins with the earliest drawings by Kusama as a teenager in the momentous year of 1945 and the exhibition ends with a group of paintings that she completed just this summer just before the exhibition opened in Hong Kong, November 2022.”

Infinity Mirrored Room – A Wish for Human Happiness, 2020

Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now is currently running at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.


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