IN DOT SPACE: the infinite world of Yayoi Kusama

I didn’t mean for so much time to pass between my last post and this one. I’m continuing my dot-themed blogging today and hoping to finish this series of prize-related posts ahead of leaving for EYF later this week. Prize-winners for the POLKAMANIA! KAL will be announced tomorrow, and I’ve loved seeing all your finished projects over on Ravelry.

I’m on the final section of my second cowl and it’s been a long and thoughtful knit.

IN DOT SPACE Prize #2

In my last post, I spoke about these beautiful African wax print bags from Shop Joli – the dotty fabric of which is remeniscent of three-dimensional space.

Today I’m going to talk about the second part of the IN DOT SPACE prize, which is a children’s book titled Yayoi Kusama, From Here to Infinity. It was produced by MoMA to celebrate the art and life of the amazing Japanese superstar artist, Yayoi Kusama.

I chose this prize because Elle Weinstein’s illustrations perfectly capture the links between the textures of the world and the distinctive dots that underpin Yayoi Kusama’s iconic art practice.

The book does a great job of transmitting Yayoi Kusama’s sense of the infinite within the everyday. Its illustrations clearly show dots in the raindrops on a plane window, dots in the cars when viewed from the top of a skyscraper, dots in the pebbles on the bottom of a riverbed, and dots as the foundation of Yayoi Kusama’s phenomenally exciting artistic vision.

I hope it will inspire further adventures in dot-knitting, colourwork, and ways of seeing the world.

Perhaps understandably for a book that is aimed at making a complex artist accessible to young children, Yayoi Kusama’s lifelong struggles with mental health and the radical, sexual content of her 1960s Happenings are not explored in Yayoi Kusama, From Here to Infinity. However, I thought I’d say a bit about these missing elements to add some background for a more adult audience, and because frankly after immersing myself in the amazingness that is Yayoi Kusama’s back-catalogue of work, I have far too much to say about her powerful use of DOTS to end my blog-post here.

While I’ve been knitting away on my cowl, I have been exploring the rich world of Yayoi Kusama’s art practice. I really enjoyed watching the documentary made about her life and work – Kusama: Infinity – and her autobiography, Infinity Net. I can’t say everything about Yayoi Kusama – she’s best understood in her own words, in her own work, and on her own terms – but here are some some of the things I’ve taken away from researching her amazing art practice.

DOT SPACE IS INFINITE, DOT SPACE IS OBLITERATION…

Yayoi describes her first solo exhibition in New York in 1959 in this book, and the following is excerpted from the brilliantly titled chapter Taking My Stand with a Single Polka Dot:

My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net. How deep was the mystery? Did infinite infinities exist beyond our universe? In exploring these questions I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating the everything – myself, other, the entire universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against pitch-dark background of nothingness. By the time the canvas reached 22ft it had transcended its nature as canvas to fill the entire room. This was my ‘epic’, summing up all that I was. And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.

In Yayoi Kusama’s amazing and foundational Infinity Net paintings, the negative space encircling each dot has been painstakingly rendered. The movement that produces each mark is organic and soft and the final painting is slowly generated through a process of accrual. The early works are thickly textured records of restless, repetitive action. To my knitter’s eyes, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets feel like the painterly equivalent of garter-stitch. Each loop is formed through a discrete gesture which contributes to the whole – to the “enfolding curtain of mysterious, invisible power”; as with knitting, the finished work is constructed loop by loop.

There is no centre to these paintings; no background or foreground… instead, Yayoi Kusama’s dots seem to map an interior place. These early paintings relate to Yayoi Kusama’s later light and mirror installations in which we can also see places that feel less like tangible geography, and more like internal states.

In her 1960s New York Happenings, Yayoi Kusama continued to use dots in events where body-painting nude dancers or attaching dots to herself and her surrounding environs became the means to obliterate individual egos and identities; a way to blur figures into the background:

…by covering my entire body with polka dots, and then covering the background with polka dots as well, I find self-obliteration. Or I stick polka dots all over a horse standing before a polka-dot background, and the form of the horse disappears, assimilated into the dots. The mass that is ‘horse’ is absorbed into something timeless. And when that happens, I too am obliterated.

Dots as records of human actions, and as a way to obliterate space, appear in my favourite Yayoi Kusama piece: Obliteration Room. A pristine white space is slowly transformed through visitors applying little dot stickers which, like Yayoi’s round brushstrokes in her Infinity Net paintings, slowly collapse all the planes and perspectives of space into a mesmerising and overwhelming continuity of dots.

…DOT SPACE IS TRANSFORMATIVE…

In her autobiography, Yayoi Kusama describes the events and experiences events which contributed to her lifelong aversion to sex and to her troubled mental health. In her work, she continually confronts and recycles these sources of trauma, transforming them into a distinctive means of expression. She speaks about disturbing visual and aural hallucinations and the difficulties of her childhood. But she is also articulate about how her creative practice has allowed her to reclaim herself from these experiences, and to rewrite them in her own way:

Artists do not usually express their own psychological complexes directly, but I do use my complexes and fears as subjects. I am terrified by just the thought of something long and ugly like a phallus entering me, and that is why I make so many of them. The thought of continually eating something like macaroni, spat out by machinery, fills me with fear and revulsion, so I make macaroni sculptures. I make them and make them and then keep on making them, until I bury myself in the process. I call this ‘obliteration’.

A soft-sculpture work Yayoi created in 1965 for the Castellane Gallery – Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field – perfectly embodies the transformative qualities of her creative processes:

The walls of the room were mirrors, and sprouting from the floor were thousands of white canvas phallic forms covered with red polka dots. The mirrors reflected them infinitely, summoning up a sublime, miraculous field of phalluses. People could walk barefoot through the phallus meadow, becoming one with the work and experiencing their own figures and movement as part of the sculpture. Wandering into this infinite wonderland, where a grandiose aggregation of human sexual symbols had been transformed into a humorous, polka-dotted field, viewers found themselves spellbound by the imagination as it exorcised sexual sickness in the naked light of day.

There’s so much more I could write about Yayoi Kusama – about how difficult it was for her when she first came to New York as a young, Japanese woman; how sexism, racism and the conservatism of her parents made her early years as an artist incredibly difficult; how she used nudity, dots, and the vastness of her vision to protest Capitalism and the Vietnam War; and how she has become a paragon of self-care and self-discipline in her eighties, continuing to work in her studio, and being cared for in the psychiatric hospital in Tokyo into which she admitted herself almost forty years ago.

There’s just so much there to explore; so much to appreciate and to try and understand; and so much more to dots than I could ever have imagined before taking this deep dive into the amazing, radical, anti-ableist, feminist, anti-war and infinite world of the artwork of Yayoi Kusama. But if I get into it in yet more depth today, this blog post will never be finished.

DOT SPACE IS AMAZING!

I really hope that the IN DOT SPACE prize featuring African wax print bags by Shop Joli plus the children’s book Yayoi Kusama, From Here to Infinity, will offer new dimensions for appreciating your hand-knitted dots and contemplating how much can be said with this seemingly simply motif.

YOURS IN INFINITE DOTS –
FX

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