Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Yayoi Kusama and the Power of Mental Illness

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, A Dream I Dreamed, at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. The show was stunning, and deeply inspiring.

Kusama is not your average avant garde artist. From the age of ten, she has experienced hallucinations in which patterns, often polka dots, take over her vision. She also has deep-seated anxieties about male power and sexual dominance. In 1977, she checked herself into a mental hospital, and has been content to make her residence there ever since.

One might argue that mental illness in artists is nothing new, but in my eyes Kusama is unique. Rather than being a separate issue, her hallucinations are the foundation of her work. Most will recognize her for the white polka dots on a red background that signify some of her best known pieces (and, indeed, which can be found in even her childhood paintings). Working on giant canvases in glaring colors, she paints repeating patterns with an obsession and meticulousness that elevates her work into the realms of high art. From her early Infinity Net Series, to her recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton, repeating motifs take on a fervent urgency in the form of staring eyes, or faces in profile. Her paintings are the physical evidence of a continual struggle. "If it were not for art," she says, "I would have killed myself a long time ago." 

The Way to My Love, (C) Yayoi Kusama

It is clear her feelings on mental illness are complex. She voluntarily receives treatment for her hallucinations and obsessive thoughts. On the other hand, Kusama acknowledges the role that mental problems play in making art. "Swallow anti-depressants and it will be gone," she sings, in a song she composed for the installation piece A Manhattan Suicide Addict, "Tear down the gate of hallucinations." As she sings, shifting, mirrored patterns appear behind her, eye-watering in a darkened hall filled with television screens. The rest of the song's lyrics are less than lucid. 

A Manhattan Suicide Addict, (C) Yayoi Kusama
Mental illness and art have always gone hand in hand for me. As a long term sufferer of anxiety and depression, I have found myself to be the most productive at my darkest moments. I believe my mental illness was critical to my development as an artist, especially during my teenage years, when I was untreated. 

Halfway into my college career, I finally hit the bottom. I retreated from the shaky life I'd built the past two years, and moved back in with my family, on the opposite side of the country. With the help of therapy and medication, I was able to start life anew. However, amidst the many changes and struggles, I lost my creative urge.

When your strongest emotions are happiness and contentment, there's little need to create something that expresses your soul in a way that words can't. Happiness seems to be a thing everyone can understand, but sorrow is so personal, you imagine no one is suffering like you. So art becomes a statement. A cry for help. A declaration of independence from the normalcy of others' daily lives. An embrace of emotions you can't overcome. Without the psychological drive to make these statements, art vanished from my life.

When I noticed the void in my life where my creativity had been, I began to question my choices. Was happiness worth losing a part of myself? Was art worth all the pain? It seemed a Catch-22.

Eventually, this conflict resolved itself. I rediscovered art, and added new crafts to my repertoire of creative pursuits. I have realized that all emotions are worthy of expression, not just the dark ones.

Kusama reinforced this discovery for me. She at once embraces and carefully controls her mental illness, and creates fantastic, world-renowned art in the midst of this balancing act. This knowledge adds an extra depth of beauty to her work. Amongst the detailed, glaringly bright creatures and motifs of her paintings is the evidence that mental illness is neither an artist's crutch nor hurdle. It is an aspect of the self, working with the rest of the mind and body, to create.

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