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Yayoi Kusama, mental illness and embracing weirdness

Is some sort of extreme isolation necessary to connect deeply?

I had a certain degree of skepticism when I went to Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Singapore. It is my fault, I didn’t know much about her or her work, and the skepticism was nurtured through the deluge of photos people were uploading on social media. It is easy to see why: many of her installations were spectacular visual treats — even I was sucked in to take a photo or two of myself infinitely mirrored:

But I came across this video installation, and I cannot find the words of how I felt except my mind was blown:

Perhaps this is what they mean when art is a mirror. I felt like my sense of reality was shifted, I experienced a joy so loud that I laughed. The priceless comfort of a feeling a sense of kindredness with the artist.

Yayoi Kusama is 88 this year. There were a few recent pieces at the exhibition spanning 70 years of her work, demonstrating that she was/is still prolifically creating her art as a octogenarian. That volume and consistency in itself is admirable. How many of us have already started to lament our creative impotency once we move out of our 20s? What does it mean and what does it take to devote an entire life to incessantly creating art?

What the National Gallery failed to mention at all (as far as I could read in all the promotional material and signs), is that Kusama has been residing in a hospital for the mentally ill since the 1970s.

Maybe it is taboo, maybe they didn’t want it to detract from the actual body of work, but the artist herself freely admits that it is her illness that drives her work.

The young Kusama dealt with her hallucinations by drawing, and by drawing repetitive patterns to “obliterate” the thoughts in her head. Even at that young age, art became a form of therapy, what she would later call ­“art-medicine.”
— source

Could one truly appreciate the light that comes out of the work, without knowing the depth of the darkness that it took to birth it?

“If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” — Yayoi Kusama

I wonder how superficial and cosmetic the coloured dots and giant pumpkins felt to some people, how poignant would they feel the sense of hope that she wants to convey?

I could almost understand the journey from her older work to her recent ones — there is remarkable thread of consistency, but her recent work is unmistakably alive, reminiscent of the creative innocence of a child.

Maybe this is what age does when one does it well: ageing frees the child within us, and the child can only be freed out of the pained adult.

Art is a mirror. I reflected. I think about the tension I have with my own weirdness, how I try to hide it and flaunt it at the same time. I think about my own mental illness — how much of my identity is influenced by the illness, how much of it is a part of my self. From her interviews it seemed to me that Kusama didn’t try to get “better” or attempt to escape from hers, she transmuted a lot of that energy into her art.

I think about how extreme she had to go before tapping into a weird, beautiful form of universal consciousness, that her art provokes such delight and fascination in her audience of varying ages, that her extremity is strangely relatable for the mainstream?

Is some sort of extreme isolation necessary to connect deeply?

I don’t have the answers, but I feel gratitude towards an artist who gave herself to her art in order for people like me to create a space for these paradoxical questions.

Endnote: I am on a journey to write and create more stuff that is provoking and meaningful to me but not necessarily relatable to a general audience. I want to be part of a world that is more diverse in interestingness (imagine a world filled with only posts on startups and how to be successful *ahem*). I am trying to make this my life’s work, and you can support my journey on Patreon.

Originally published on Medium.

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