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