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Japan's most famous avant-garde artist banned us from her studio

by Dexter Thomas
Oct 3 2017, 12:21pm

This week, I had the honor of experiencing two rare artistic blessings. First, I was able to meet Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama in person, in her new Tokyo museum.

Then, hours later, I was banned from her personal studio.

In the art world, 88-year-old Kusama is a living deity, the Queen of the Avant-Garde, the most expensive female artist alive. In her home country, she’s popular enough to appear on talk shows and star in commercials, and on Oct. 1, she opened her own museum, dedicated to her own work.

She is also popular worldwide, though people abroad are more likely to recognize her work than Kusama herself. You’ve likely seen Kusama’s trademark polka dots somewhere, whether in a painting or on a Louis Vuitton bag. Her “Infinity Mirror Room,” currently showing at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, is so popular (and hard to get tickets for) that it’s been compared to “Hamilton.” But again, it’s the mirrors making most of the headlines, not the artist herself.

Hearing that Kusama would be opening a museum, then, I had to get a glimpse into the mind of the woman who has influenced everyone from Yoko Ono to Andy Warhol. Does she like it when people take selfies in her mirror rooms? How has her view of death, a strong theme in her early work, changed over the years? What message did she hope to send with her new museum?

So, after weeks of my producer negotiating access with her PR company, I flew to Tokyo with a small camera crew. The plan was to film a brief introduction of Kusama in her museum on Monday, and then the next day, sit down in her private studio for a more in-depth interview.

We were at the museum when she arrived on Monday. Her staff introduced us, then told me I could speak to her but I should be brief. Considering we had the full interview set for the next day, I asked her just a couple of introductory questions in Japanese – to tell me one piece in her museum she really wanted visitors to pay attention to, and also to tell me about the title and meaning of a painting on the wall next to us. She answered these, then said she’d rather not answer any more questions. I thanked her, we bowed to each other, and I left with my crew to film the rest of the museum and prepare for the following day.

A few hours later, we received an angry email from the head of Kusama’s PR company. My producer called to ask what was wrong, and was told that Kusama had not been aware I was going to talk to her – and that the questions were “low-quality.” The company insisted I not speak to her again. Any further coverage would proceed only on the condition that I wouldn’t be physically present.

I was no longer allowed to be in the same room as Yayoi Kusama.

We were later told that Kusama said she’d had trouble understanding what I was asking. She had also decided, after hearing my questions, that I did not understand her work.

Fortunately, I had taken a tour of the museum already, so I was able to experience her exhibition anyway. Her paintings are as intricate and earnest as ever, her pumpkin mirror room tells a story that is equal parts lonely and reverential. Even the elevator, mirrored with large red polka dots, is a joyful epiphany (for best results, ride with a friend).

Messages written around the walls call for love and peace. These exhortations have grown increasingly nebulous over the span of her career – which is just as well, as her work on specific earthly political concerns has historically been inconsistent. As much as she is praised for her support of oppressed communities, her understanding of such communities is sometimes disappointingly simplistic.

For example, black people make several appearances in Kusama’s 2002 autobiography as exotic or primitive beings. She breathlessly marvels at “[black people’s] distinctive smell” and “animalistic sex techniques.” She recalls using a naked black man in her own performance art, apparently for visual effect, describing his lips and genitals in detail. She also laments that the area in Greenwich Village where she used to live has turned into a “slum,” where real estate prices are “falling by $5 a day” because “black people are shooting each other out front” (this sentence is only in her original Japanese text – it was deleted from the English translation, curiously). And though her work as a poet and novelist is less known than her visual work, these stereotypical themes also appear in her short story “The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street,” which features a young black male prostitute who is an impulsive drug addict.

Overall, it’s a pattern that reflects an uncritical and unimaginative acceptance of mainstream American racism, and also leaves me wondering if my own blackness might have played some small role in Kusama’s assumption that I did not understand her art and was thus unfit to interview her.

That said, one can’t be too critical of Kusama’s (or her staff’s) decision to remove me from her presence. Kusama has openly struggled with a fragile mental health condition, suffers from constant hallucinations, and has lived in a psychiatric hospital for the past 40 years. She has been known to cut interviews short before. Something about my appearance, manner, or speech may have made her feel uncomfortable. And though I’ve never had trouble communicating in other Japanese interviews, my foreign accent may well have given her difficulty understanding me.

Then again, she also seems recently to have some difficulty understanding her own (native Japanese) staff. They speak to her slowly, repeating things often, and instruct reporters to speak to her only in short, simple sentences, warning that she will otherwise become agitated and confused.

Kusama has stated on numerous occasions that she intends to paint until she is physically unable to do so – a time that may be nearing. She’s no longer able to stand up to paint, so she sits in a wheelchair and paints on canvases laid flat on a table. Her staff then rotates the canvas as she paints so she doesn’t have to move. She works tirelessly, taking only a single half-hour meal break each day, preferring food like sushi because she doesn’t have to stop working — she can just pop it into her mouth while she paints. It’s a relentless schedule that would wear down people half her age, but it is essential. For Kusama, creating art is the only thing keeping the world from closing in around her.

Kusama’s new museum stands as a monument to a living giant. It is a permanent retrospective of an artist who, at 88 years of age, still has yet to reach her professional peak. Her work may have flaws, but her invitation to stare, along with her, into that imperfect oblivion, is worth accepting.