Jakarta. In an interview with the Tate Modern, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama said her mother had once thrown away all her inks and canvases when she was a child. Kusama had wanted to make art since she was 10, but her mother expressly forbade her, telling her she should start preparing to become a housewife instead.
But Kusama was nothing if not persistent. She enrolled herself at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948.
She was only taught a traditional art style called the Nihonga, but she was brave enough to infuse it with an early version of her now familiar surrealist touch.
Kusama has since produced art that steadfastly resists categorization.
"She has said repeatedly that she was not concerned with surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art or minimalism, but only with escaping her mental suffering through her art. For her, art and art therapy were the same thing. Sanity was the illusion," feminist and critic Germaine Greer wrote in the Guardian.
The artist's life has been full of struggles – which include long stays in psychiatric hospitals – but the playful shapes and colors in her art show that her joie de vivre remains undiminished.
From this Saturday (12/05), "Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow," an exhibition at Jakarta's brand new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN) will give locals a chance to finally see an overview of Kusama’s career and life.
This is the third and final stop for the traveling exhibition after successful spells at National Gallery Singapore and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).
Since Kusama's works owe a great deal to her inner turmoil, her artistic career cannot be viewed separately from her personal history.
Attending the exhibition is like playing in Kusama’s very own wonderland.
Some of the artworks, such as "The Obliteration Room" and "I Want to Love on the Festival Night," offered a shared experience, but everything feels intimate, like being given a passage deep into her mind where we can feel and experience her personal anguish and struggles.
You will exit the exhibition feeling tremendous respect for Kusama's resilience and her devotion to her art.
The first works we see when we enter MACAN are Kusama's famous "With All My Love for the Tulips, I Pray Forever" and "Great Gigantic Pumpkin."
Then followed two massive installations, "Dots Obsession" and "Narcissus Garden," which are almost guaranteed to attract hordes of selfie sticks.
After that, the exhibition followed the chronology of her life, starting with early works from the 1950s when Kusama moved from Japan to New York, the city where she met and influenced Andy Warhol and spent the next seventeen years of her life.
Born in 1929, Kusama went through Japan's hard years during and after World War II.
The lack of support from her family to pursue art was compounded by problems with her parents’ marriage, which severely affected her psyche.
In works such as "Flower" and "The Night" (1952-1953), we see the start of her obsession with dots.
It has been widely documented that Kusama's signature dots and pumpkins were inspired by the hallucinations she's long experienced since she was a young girl.
In an interview with Artspace, Kusama said that art for her is "self-therapy" to "cure" her of the hallucinations.
Kusuma's art also deals with her sexual trauma.
When she was a kid, her mother often sent her to spy on her womanizing father. This is said to have contributed to her fear of the male genitalia.
She channeled that fear by making phallic-shaped but cute-looking soft sculptures (also with dots), such as "Pollen" (1984), which is also in this exhibition.
Socially Conscious and Depressed
Not all of Kusama's works are focused on her personal trauma. Her "Narcissus Garden" (1966), made up of 1,500 silver balls and shown in the 33rd Venice Biennale, was a critique of the commercialization of art.
From 1967 to 1970, she staged "happenings" or "orgies" to protest against the Vietnam War.
These orgies – one of them was called "Anatomic Explosions" – often featured nude dancers and provoked scandals.
Though Kusama was already famous outside Japan, the nude protests turned her into a pariah in the conservative Japanese art scene when she returned home in 1973.
"She was considered a disgrace, and she was really sad about it. She didn't go, 'I don’t care. This is me,'" Museum MACAN coordinator Renjana "Widy" Widyakirana said during a press tour on Monday.
Despite being given the cold shoulder, Kusama continued to work in her home country, climbing her way up the art scene just like she did back in New York.
She started dabbling with poetry, writing the "Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict" which opened with the powerful lines, "Swallow antidepressants and it will be gone/Tear down the gate of hallucinations."
The poem was adapted into a song and a video art in 2010.
Many of Kusama's poems were based on her suicide attempts after severe bouts of depression.
In 1977, after suffering from panic attacks and hallucinations, Kusama checked herself in to the Seiwa psychiatric hospital in Tokyo and set up a studio across the road so she could still work on her art.
"Kusama isn’t an artist who takes advantage of her mental illness. Art is her way of living. She doesn’t tell people to look at her because she’s 'crazy' or eccentric," Widy said.
The current exhibition’s title is taken from one of the works in Kusama's "My Eternal Soul" series, which followed right after "Love Forever" (2004-2007).
My Eternal Soul was started in 2009 and now has over 500 pieces in the series.
According to Widy and curator Asri Winata, the title captures the way Kusama contemplates mortality and her decision to stick with art all her life.
"She mentioned in her autobiography that she used to be scared of death because she saw it as something far away, but then it dawned on her that death could be just like 'stepping into the room next door.' Life is the Heart of a Rainbow means making art makes her no longer fear death. She can now understand it," Asri told reporters.
In the last chapter of her 2003 autobiography, "Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama," Kusama admitted that death was one of the main themes of her art.
She overcame her fear of death by continuing to make art that can withstand time.
"What I think about first and foremost is that I want to create good art. That is my sole desire. It would be futile and meaningless to focus on the shrinking time-frame before me, or to think of my limitations. I shall never stop striving to create works that will shine on after my death. There are nights when I cannot sleep simply because my heart is bursting with the aspiration to make art that will last forever," Kusama wrote.
Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow opens for public at Museum MACAN on Saturday (12/05). Tickets cost Rp 80,000-Rp 100,000 ($6-$7) and are available from the museum’s official website.