Ja­panese artist Yayoi Kusama, 85, has lived in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal for al­most half her life. Here she ex­plains her cre­ative process

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As soon as I wake up I have a glass of wa­ter. For break­fast I have bread, rice or por­ridge with fruit and black tea. I don’t cook it my­self be­cause I live in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in cen­tral Tokyo where I have lived since the mid-1970s. [She ad­mit­ted her­self, hav­ing suf­fered from ner­vous dis­or­ders and hal­lu­ci­na­tions since child­hood.]

I am looked af­ter, it is in a quiet, residential area of the city and it is con­ve­nient — my stu­dio is just around the cor­ner, and a mem­ber of my staff will take me to the stu­dio in the car. I do not have much in my room ex­cept books.

The stu­dio is in a build­ing that is big enough to serve its pur­pose: I have space to paint, racks to house my paint­ings and a li­brary for my books. When I ar­rive, I put on my work clothes and be­gin paint­ing straight­away. Be­cause I am quite frail, my can­vases are laid out flat on a large ta­ble so I can work on them while sit­ting down.

I have 10 as­sis­tants and when I am ready one of them will wheel my chair into po­si­tion. They will also bring me acrylic paint in a saucer, one colour at a time, and will move me around the ta­ble as I fin­ish each sec­tion of the can­vas.

I don’t make sketches of my paint­ings; I just paint with­out think­ing, and some­times I sur­prise my­self. I also cre­ate sculp­ture with the help of my team, but only I can paint. I am sure I work harder than any­one and I have re­cently had four ex­hi­bi­tions on the go — in Asia, Lon­don and Latin Amer­ica. In Latin Amer­ica nearly two mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited the show so far, so I feel blessed that so many peo­ple have found a con­nec­tion to my work, but I do not think I will re­ally be de­fined as an artist un­til my death.

I stop for lunch at noon for five or 10 min­utes. I will eat sushi or rice balls and some­times I have a bit of cho­co­late or cake. I eat quickly be­cause I am usu­ally in the mid­dle of a paint­ing and want to get back to it straight­away.

I am known for the polka-dot mo­tif in my work, which to me rep­re­sents so many things — the stars, the moon … even my­self. I can still re­mem­ber do­ing a por­trait of my mother when I was 10 and putting polka dots in the pic­ture. But I take in many other mo­tifs. I ab­so­lutely adore pump­kins. I think they em­body the joy of liv­ing. They have also been a great com­fort to me since child­hood — and I had a mis­er­able child­hood.

I was born in Mat­sumoto city, where my fam­ily were seed mer­chants. They were al­ways on bad terms with one another and my mother, who was an an­gry woman, was against me paint­ing. But from a young age I knew I wanted to be an artist and even­tu­ally my par­ents let me go to an art school in Ky­oto to study Ja­panese paint­ing. As well as my paint­ing and sculp­ture, I have writ­ten po­ems and nov­els, and I have been mak­ing films since the 60s.

I see ev­ery­thing as an ex­ten­sion of my work: I even de­sign my own clothes and have col­lab­o­rated with de­sign­ers like Louis Vuit­ton. So I have lots of dresses and ac­ces­sories but, be­cause I am al­ways paint­ing, I rarely get a chance to wear them. On the rare oc­ca­sion I do get to dress up, I al­ways wear a wig and red lip­stick.

I paint right up un­til din­ner time. I stop work at six and re­turn home where I will try to have some­thing healthy. I love sushi. I also have a weak­ness for banana pan­cakes, but only when I am stay­ing at the Savoy in Lon­don. In the evening, I stay in my room and write po­ems or read books about cos­mol­ogy and the uni­verse.

I love read­ing and have just fin­ished a book on quan­tum me­chan­ics. But it can up­set me, too, es­pe­cially when I read about war and all the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions go­ing on around the world.

If there’s one thing I would like to do more of these days it is sleep. I have been paint­ing for decades and have been so busy with cre­ation that I feel tired ev­ery day.

But I also know that when I am not paint­ing my thoughts can be­come dark … once, when I wanted to com­mit sui­cide, it was paint­ing that saved me.

I go to sleep around mid­night, only some­times I will wake up in the mid­dle of the night and want to start draw­ing things in my sketch­book un­til I am sleepy again.

The thing I am most afraid of in life is soli­tude, but then I think I have my­self and my work, and that is all I need.

As told to Rosanna Ne­grotti

The Sun­day Times

Yayoi Kusama’s Ja­pan b. 1929 / Soul un­der the Moon 2002 is be­ing shown as part of We Can Make Another Fu­ture: Ja­panese Art Af­ter 1989, at the Queens­land Gallery of Mod­ern Art, Bris­bane, un­til Septem­ber 20.

Polka dots and pump­kins are among the favourite mo­tifs of Ja­panese artist Yayoi Kusama, seen here in a 2014 por­trait; her Soul un­der the

Moon, 2002,


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