Is it possible to thrive while sick? To live large not in spite of one’s illness but because of it?
Japanese artist Kusama Yayoi voluntarily committed herself to Tokyo’s Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977 and has lived there ever since, although she leaves the residence daily to work in her nearby art studio. Perhaps not coincidentally, this psychiatric hospital is a short walk from a former home of Izumi Kyōka, a favorite writer of hers who penned phantasmagoric tales at the turn of the last century.
Kusama is defiant in her differentness. Now in her late 80s, she gives interviews from her blue-spotted wheelchair, outfitted in psychedelic dresses. Speaking fast, she says things like, “I don’t want to cure my mental problems. I want to utilize them as a generating force for my art.” Beneath her neon-red, bobbed wig, she is dead-serious in expression and delivery.
When most people familiar with Kusama picture her work, their minds flood with polka dots. Or they enter an endless galaxy of shimmering lights—one of her “infinity mirror rooms,” which are her most popular exhibit. She is also famed for her dotted pumpkins and the collection she designed for Louis Vuitton. A canny self-promoter who mixes Pop and performance art with psychological obsessions, she is sort of a female Japanese version of Andy Warhol—who, she claims, stole ideas from her.
Since preadolescence, Kusama has sourced inspiration from her waking nightmares. She suffers from rijinshou 離人症, which could be literally translated as “separate person symptom” (the first kanji is used in the Japanese words for “to separate” and “divorce”). In English it is usually rendered as depersonalization. Even the hallucinations it spurs in her are picturesque, something out of Lewis Carroll or Fantasia. For instance, she has described an experience with rijinshou that she had as a child, sitting in a bed of violets: “One day, I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were all talking to me.”
She likely finds safety and freedom by living in a psychiatric hospital, but she also encounters notoriety. And she loves it, as she has always loved it. About five years ago, she said, “I want to become more famous, even more famous.”
Some journalists, art critics, and scholars have speculated that Kusama’s mental state is more posture than bonafide illness, something she uses to manipulate her public image and artistic reputation. It is impossible to know for sure, but this view strikes me as uncharitable and a bit simplistic. I think it helps to consider Kusama’s decision to make art and court publicity while institutionalized in light of Japan’s treatment of psychiatric disorders and suicide, both in society and its national literature.
If you played a drinking game while tearing through the major books in the Japanese canon and took a shot every time a story featured suicide, particularly a love suicide, you would need a new liver by the time you were done. Even contemporary titans like Murakami Haruki refract this tradition through their works, with his early novel Norwegian Wood—an institution in Japan—including more than one suicide in its plot. And some of Japan’s most celebrated authors lived what they wrote. Mishima’s sensational act of seppuku, or ritual suicide, is well known, and one shudders to think how parents reacted when they heard their daughter was dating Dazai Osamu. Author of The Setting Sun, one of the first great Japanese novels of the postwar period, Dazai attempted double suicide with a bar hostess at age nineteen, a few days after being disowned by his family for running off with a different woman, geisha Oyama Hatsuyo; the hostess perished but he didn’t. He eventually married Oyama and, after several solo suicide attempts, morphine addiction, hospitalization, and discovery of his wife’s affair, she and he tried to kill themselves with sleeping pills. When neither died, they decided to go the more prosaic route and divorce. Dazai quickly remarried, but after a decade or so he left his wife for another woman, and this time he succeeded in dying with her. And these are just two of the more colorful examples of suicide among twentieth-century literati in Japan. However, the fact that suicide is a robust cultural-literary phenomenon belies the country’s outmoded treatments and perceptions of mental illnesses like depression that can lead to it.
The traditional explanation for the frequency with which suicide occurs in Japanese texts and society has to do with the lack of Judeo-Christian proscriptions against it, as well as the country’s emphasis on sublimation of personal pain in service of the greater good. It is certainly true that self-obliteration has a much different valence in a country that has internalized Buddhist precepts than it does in Western countries. And I can appreciate that embracing one’s pain and destiny, through suicide, could be seen as a transgressive, empowering act in a society that values quiet conformity—not to mention, in some cases, the only way out of that pain. But there is also an element of performance in suicide. It turns private pain into a necessarily public display, through legal inquiry if not showmanship like Mishima’s. It is an attempt to wrest control from a situation that seems to deny you any, and it ensures that others will bear witness to your suffering, whether they want to or not.
Kusama’s decision to court international fame from an asylum may pivot on similar principles. Of course she has not committed suicide, and nor, to my knowledge, has she attempted it. But by publicly admitting her mental disorders she is defying the prevailing culture and its insistence that individuals suppress or at least hide anything that impairs their ability to function smoothly within the group. Given the stigma toward being diagnosed with or treated for mental illness in Japan, she may have felt it was more rewarding—in several senses—to own that stigma as proudly as she owns her blinding dresses, rather than engage in a futile struggle to hide her abnormalities. If your mental health history can always be used against you, why not try to use it yourself for some benefit? If doctors are going to pore over your story to find reasons to incarcerate you, why shouldn’t you try to turn the tale to your advantage?
What is more, as Kusama openly discusses her rijinshou and institutionalization, she creates a platform from which she can publicize and sell art that rejoices in self-obliteration instead of succumbing to its ultimate form—suicide. Creating art defers her dissolution, but maybe its being seen by others is for her a prerequisite for its power.
Kusama has said, “I don’t like sex. I had an obsession with sex. When I was a child, my father had lovers and I saw him with them. My mother sent me to spy on him. I didn’t want to have sex with anyone for years.” In a not unusual move, she coped with this dread of sex through her work. Even in an oeuvre pitted with repetition, her obsession with sexuality and phallic objects stands out. During the years she spent in New York, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, she covered furniture with fake penises, protested violence with public nudity, opened a boutique to sell see-through clothing, briefly published a magazine called Kusama Orgy, and offered herself to Nixon in exchange for him pulling out of Vietnam. She had photos taken of herself in the nude, dots superimposed on her flesh, but when she staged performance pieces in which others were naked, she was usually clothed.
While she is little known for her literary efforts outside of Japan, Kusama also writes books. They usually center on luminous lunatics, prostitutes, and drug addicts and include scenes like this one, in which a hustler cuts off his john’s cock: “In his accursed hand he notices something that glitters a bright sports-car silver. The semen dogging him through the night continues to flow incessantly, entwining itself around the jackknife in his hand and dripping down on the carpet.”
This blitzkrieg of aggressive sexuality, like her pushing her mental problems to the forefront of the discussion, seems to me like an offensive tactic. As an attractive young Asian woman struggling to conquer the patriarchic art scene of mid-twentieth-century New York, she was inevitably going to be fetishized. By presenting herself as a fetish from the start, and with an irrepressible zest that invigorated several artistic genres, she seized control and pushed creative boundaries.
I like to think there is more to it, though. In interviews, Kusama voices sentiments like, “I have always loved humanity above all.” Yet we’re supposed to love, a certain way, a finite number of recipients. Anything else is madness.
But maybe she has found a way to do it.
In August 2016, I visited the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, accompanied by a Brazilian friend who is blessed with the dynamite name of Alberto Albuquerque. Located about two hours by train from Kofu, Matsumoto is Kusama’s hometown, and its museum boasts a core collection of her work. Entering the grounds, museum-goers are greeted by a sculpture garden that is like the speckled floral nest of a giant, prehistoric bird.
By this time my body had already turned on me. A nasty summer cold had resolved itself, but ever since then my joint pain and fatigue, problems since the start of the year, had skyrocketed. I didn’t know it yet, but my first serious flare of systemic lupus was insisting its presence. But I didn’t want to acknowledge that I wasn’t doing well. That something was happening to me, within me, but beyond my control.
The dots that covered nearly everything in the museum greeted me like friends, but rude friends, the kind who laugh at you if they think your clothes are awful or you stumble when you walk. The spots spun around me, stippling my world like a pack of punch-drunk leopards.
What struck me most at the museum was Kusama’s tenacity in the face of her family’s brutal resistance to her drive and talent. In the first of the rooms devoted to her work, we were told that at ten she completed her first painting. Her mother tore it up and tried to beat the impulse out of her. She was a businesswoman, a shrewd chaperone of the family’s concerns, in sharp contrast to her profligate husband.
Kusama’s mother locked her in her room but it came alive with hallucinations. She didn’t understand: If Kusama didn’t do the dots, the dots would do her in. Her choice was not between convention and art, but between survival and destruction. Her brother joined in too, yelling at her for her pretensions but occasionally softening enough to suggest she become an art collector instead of an artist.
Around the time the abuse began, young Kusama found, in a used bookstore, a beautiful book of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. She wrote to her, confided in her. The doyenne of American art sent her back a very kind reply, and the two began corresponding. Likely, O’Keeffe’s letters were her passport to flee her home and her tormentors.
When she left Matsumoto, her mother told her never to return.
So she kept going—to New York, to fifteen minutes of fame, to the asylum, to living legend. With that past behind her, the hospital must have seemed a truer home.
Maybe it was because of my body’s silent ambush, but as I walked through the museum, the polka dots suggested disease to me, like smallpox on the walls. I wondered how Kusama saw them in her hallucinations and in the green room of her artist’s mind.
The highlight of the Matsumoto City Museum of Art is one of Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms. On the day I visited, at the height of August’s heat, the museum was not crowded, and Alberto and I had to wait in line just a few minutes for our turn. Only one or two guests are allowed inside at a time.
The walls and ceiling of this tiny house are made of mirrors. LED lights are reflected endlessly; time shimmers and trips. Stops. It is a grotto of heartbeats skipped, a peepshow booth even more illusory than most. Given all the mirrors, it could be viewed as an origami box of narcissism folded in on itself, but Kusama insists that she aims, with these rooms, to show a world beyond our own. Of course, the infinite could easily accommodate both readings: the human and the sublime.
I have heard that some people kiss for the first time in the infinity rooms, while others propose to their future spouses. For me it represented a starry-night sanctuary. But for Kusama, perhaps each of these rooms is a Big Bang of chaos, which she cannot help experiencing over and over again.
Kusama and Joseph Cornell were friends when she lived in New York. The two drew each other and spent time together, and although Cornell was infatuated with her, their relationship appears to have been romantic but not consummated. At one point, he made a collage and dedicated it to her. Two yellow butterflies fly out from a brown picture frame, tethered to it by strings like kites that yearn. Within the frame, the Williams-Carlos-Williams-esque poem:
Fly back to me
And I shall tie
A string to you
Like the butterfly.
I taste some of
the drink in your
glass that you leave
I drink to Yayoi
I think of my princess
Cornell constructed perfect little boxes into which he fit his world—ballerinas, birds, Kusama surrogates, and all. But Kusama thought so hard outside the box she was swallowed by it.
As we emerged from the infinity mirror room, I remembered that the Japanese word for polka dots—for these shapes I interpreted as virulent—is mizutama 水玉. The word could be translated as “water drops,” but the second kanji can also signify jewels and gems, and it is used in several words related to geisha culture. Thus, mizutama hints at something beautiful, something fleeting or precious.
Or maybe Kusama’s polka dots are beach balls bounced playfully off the edge of a sick, sick world. Her world. My world. Our world.
As the title of one of her exhibitions exhorts—Love forever.
CYNTHIA GRALLA is the author of The Floating World, a novel published by Ballantine, and The Demimonde in Japanese Literature, an academic monograph from Cambria Press. She is currently working on Chronic: Blame, Bodies, and Decades of Madness, a hybrid of memoir and cultural theory, and has written for Salon, The Mississippi Review, and Entropy. Cynthia earned her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
To read more, visit Cynthia Gralla’s website