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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Yayoi Kusama Museum: Searching for Love
Lucy Birmingham
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Portrait of Yayoi Kusama (2017).
Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

At 88, Yayoi Kusama shows no signs of slowing down. Her new museum in Tokyo is the latest testament to her long and storied life creating what she calls "psychosomatic art" that's been fueled by hallucinations since childhood, a disciplined and obsessive art practice doubling as therapy, and savvy self-promotion.

Opened in October, the five-story Yayoi Kusama Museum, with its clean white exterior and large windows, is a startling standout in the bland residential neighborhood located not far from her studio and the psychiatric hospital she has called home since 1977.

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Yayoi Kusama Museum exterior (2017).
Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

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Yayoi Kusama Museum entrance (2017).
Photo by Lucy Birmingham

Inside, her iconic red dots envelop visitors in the bathrooms and elevator. Examples of her popular pumpkins appear on the rooftop and in a mirrored infinity work tucked into a small, dark room. The paintings displayed in the inaugural exhibition are a fine sampling of her recent works -- a floor each of silkscreens transformed from marker pen drawings in black and white (2004-2007) and acrylic paintings in riotous color (2009-2017).

With her messages of love and the inaugural exhibition title, Creation Is a Solitary Pursuit, Love Is What Brings You Closer to Art, it's hard not to love and admire this mad old woman in the flaming red wig and dotted dress. Her astounding artistic output, international recognition and financial success have all been gained while battling mental illness.

And yet, it's also hard not to reminisce about her politically and socially charged artworks, performances and writings during her 15 years in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s. Arriving there at age 27, she was liberated from her restrictive life in Japan and free to explore various mediums. With her nude theater group she advocated sexual liberation and protested against patriarchy and puritanism. She also sparred with war, capitalism, racism and other injustices of the time.

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Yayoi Kusama, Starry Pumpkin Starry Pumpkin (2015),
FRP, tile; 181 x 202 x 203 cm. Collection of the artist,
courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

Those radical days are far from the safe and commercially oriented turn her visions now take in her design work for fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton. They are also far from the apparent racism that emerged during her interview with a Vice magazine reporter before her museum opening. Underneath the fame and fortune, one hopes her free spirit remains. "Her artwork may now be prolific, but it's lost the soul of the '50s and '60s," says art patron Joni Waka, one of her longtime friends.

Waka recalls an evening in 1998 when Kusama's innate rebellious streak emerged again in true avant-garde form. It was exactly 40 years after she had been thrown out of the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden for a risqué nude performance in 1958. "It was a bit of a payback for Kusama," Waka says with a mischievous smile. "A joke on the MOMA."

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Yayoi Kusama,
PUMPKINS SCREAMING ABOUT LOVE BEYOND INFINITY (2017),
mixed media, dimensions variable.
Photo by Lucy Birmingham

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3rd floor, latest painting series
My Eternal Soul
(2009-2017), acrylic on canvas.
Photo by Lucy Birmingham

The evening turned out to be fraught with surprises for the crème de la crème of L.A. society who gathered at the famed Chateau Marmont Hotel for the launching party of Kusama's Love Forever solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. MOMA and LACMA had organized and co-curated the traveling exhibition with works from her New York days between 1958 and 1968. Viewed by many as a quirky misfit during that period, she was now an art celebrity.

"At the party, everyone was waiting and waiting for Kusama to arrive," says Waka. "The MOMA people were getting very nervous, and thought she wouldn't come because of her illness. She has good days and bad days, but that day she was sharp as a tack." The organizers didn't know that Waka and Kusama had brought six butoh dancers from Japan who were waiting on the terrace with her to begin their titillating and terrifying performance.

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Yayoi Kusama, I LOVE-EYES (2013),
acrylic on canvas; 194 x 194 cm.
Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

When the guests began to leave and the tension was just right, Waka threw open the French doors onto the huge terrace. "There was Kusama with the naked butoh performers dancing about as she ran after them covering their bodies in gold and silver polka-dot seals," he says. "The guests stood there with their mouths open, and then slowly stepped out on the terrace." But the show didn’t end there.

"Earlier, I had told the butoh dancers that everyone in L.A. is very jaded, and they had to do something really radical and shocking to make an impression," Waka reveals. They complied by jumping up on the terrace wall, holding their arms around each other like a cabaret chorus, and kicking up their legs in unison. "It looked like burlesque, but if they took one wrong step they would have fallen to their deaths," he says. "Everyone was holding their breath."

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2nd floor, Love Forever series (2004-2007),
monochrome drawings.
Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

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Yayoi Kusama, WOMEN WAITING FOR SPRING [TZW] (2005),
silkscreen on canvas; 130.3 x 162 cm.
Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama Museum

This was followed by a leapfrog/pseudo-sodomy skit on the terrace. The finale involved climbing up the roof and straddling one of the hotel’s precariously perched gargoyles. There, high above the city of Los Angeles, the six waved to the guests below. Next to the terrace, a giant billboard of a smoking Marlboro Man added the finishing visual touch to the surreal and unforgettable gathering. The newly celebrated Kusama surely got her MOMA revenge.

With her celebrity status now cemented, what’s next for the queen of polka dots? Centenarian Japanese artists like the legendary Toko Shinoda, still painting at 104, offer inspiration. And Kusama has rightly established her own legacy, influencing such artists as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and Damien Hirst. But in her golden age as a self-proclaimed lone wolf, one hopes she will reach back to her roots as a free-spirited, avant-garde soul. This is the love that will bring us closer to her art.

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Yayoi Kusama Museum infinity elevator with red dots (2017).
Photo by Lucy Birmingham


All images are shown by permission of Yayoi Kusama Museum.


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Creation Is a Solitary Pursuit, Love Is What Brings You Closer to Art
1 October 2017 - 25 February 2018
Yayoi Kusama Museum
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Lucy Birmingham
Lucy Birmingham is a long-time, Tokyo-based journalist, scriptwriter, author, and former photojournalist. She recently served two years as president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. She has written regularly for TIME magazine and her articles have appeared in many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Bloomberg News, and Architectural Digest. As an arts and culture writer her articles have appeared in publications including Artinfo.com, Artforum.com, and ARTnews. She is also a scriptwriter and narrator for NHK (Japan's public broadcaster) and has published several books including Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. lucybirmingham.com
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