I had never heard of Yayoi Kusama.
If you were to look at her artwork you would think it was the work of a ubiquitously happy hippy permanently tripping through the sixties. You would be wrong. Quite a bit wrong. But not at fault.
You see, to experience Yayoi Kusama’s art work is to take your eyes and brain on a visual picnic in a meadow of naturalistic patterns and vibrant colours. At first, without knowing Kusama’s background, you see an optimistic contentedness with the world around her; a celebration of life and its multicoloured existence.
To delve deeper, uncomfortably deep one might say, and you will see a newer dimension to her art. One seeped and centred around her mental illness; Kusama has suffered from intense audio-visual hallucinations since childhood. In fact, her art work can be summed up no better than from the woman herself:
My art originates from hallucinations only I can see … All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease.
With her infinity nets series composed of many miniature circles or dots (and much of her art balancing precariously on a scaffolding of dots) Kusama leaves next to nothing to the imagination. Strong (and perhaps aggressive) patterns invade everything in life; like hallucinations have invaded hers. “Polka dots symbolise disease” Kusuma has said.
I found it interesting the title of this exhibition is a little light-hearted “Life Is The Heart Of The Rainbow”, almost comes across a little dismissive of Kusama’s mental illness and the saga that resides behind her art. Perhaps that initial joy at experiencing the art is what the National Gallery wanted to remain with the viewer. You can’t fault them for taking that approach I suppose. “Art As A Result of Terrifying Hallucinations” just wouldn’t bring the families flocking.
You leave the exhibition with an un-nerving sense of joy at the art you have witnessed but the fact that Kusama is living out the rest of her life in a psychiatric asylum (voluntarily) weighs heavy on the mind; like a net trawling through deep waters of patterns.