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A Life Between Going Crazy and Healing: Yayoi Kusama



Researchers have long been passionate about investigating the invisible link between mental health and creativity. It's no secret that some of the most famous artists of all time have been plagued by delusions and hallucinations. Findings and some mixed beliefs agree that the main parallel between creativity and mental illness is their deviation from normative thinking. The strong relationship between these two concepts perhaps led to the existence of the most original artists in history. One of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century, Nikola Tesla, suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder with numerous rituals that kept him on the edge of society. Joan Miró, like Van Gogh, experienced his first symptoms of depression when he was just 18 years old. A contemporary of Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, creator of The Scream, was diagnosed with various diagnoses, including depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar mood disorder. Many creative names such as Virginia Woolf, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Marina Abramovic have struggled with similar diseases as well as various stigma and prejudices throughout their lives.


The question of whether it is a coincidence that names who produce such brilliant works are prone to mental illnesses is one of the important questions of researchers. When we read the biographies of most successful artists, we see that they face a number of common worldly problems such as lifelong pain, misunderstanding and poverty. Others, like Basquiat, fell victim to a series of tragic influences, as they rose to fame and fortune too young to control their talents. Psychologist Perpetua Neo, who conducts psychopathology research on artists, draws attention to artists who have been subjected to psychological and physical torture throughout their lives in an interview with Insider: “Many of them use their tortured selves to create meaning and convey it through art.”


Yayoi Kusama, Horse Play, Woodstock, 1967

There may not be an artist who is more speculated and talked about than Yayoi Kusama with her spiritual ups and downs in the art world. Although she is said to be the pioneer of pop art by art writers, she does not fully fit any movement or style, as she developed an extremely personal art that is a strong expression of her inner world. After a life full of psychological distress, panic attacks, hallucinations and suicide attempts, she defines her dozens of valuable works as "psychosomatic art". Kusama herself made the newest definition of art, which is the product of deep spiritual wars, in which many names such as Munch were categorized that art under the name of expressionism for years.


Infinity Mirror Room, Phalli's Field, 1965

Yayoi Kusama's life is well known to those who follow the artist's career. Raised by an authoritarian mother and a depressed father, Kusama discovered her trademark "infinity web" stained spots at the age of ten. Traumatized by the hopeless environment of post-war Japan, the young artist began suffering from a variety of mental health problems from childhood, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and hallucinations. It was also during this period that she began to have hallucinations, that she described as "patterns that move, multiply, devour everything around her and eventually consume her". Her art, which started with repetitive patterns, was while an expression of mental illnesses, also, it became a tool she used as a way out of her deep psychological turmoil.



Another trauma from Yayoi's childhood left deep marks on her life and art. Her hatred of men and her sex phobia have created "soft sculptures", which are the signature elements of her art. Kusama grew up in a loveless marriage, in a conservative environment. Moreover, being forced by her mother to spy on her father's extramarital affairs and witnessing many betrayals over and over again has given little Yayoi a lifelong trauma.


Kusama decides to go to New York to start a new life. On the plane, she remembers looking out the window and seeing the ever-expanding nets in the ocean, turning them into endless azure nets in the Pacific Ocean. “Pacific Ocean” (1960) is one of the first paintings of the artist directly related to her hallucinations. In the 1960s, she joined the avant-garde movement that influenced New York and began to appear with big names such as Eva Hesse and Andy Warhol.



Kusama's artistic life has had its ups and downs in parallel with her mental health. Kusama's rising success is overshadowed by the rapidly rising male-dominated art world in 1970s America. Despite all her connections and reputation, she had financial difficulties and struggled with mental illness for years. She explains that she does not see herself as an artist; she only deals with art to cope with her illness.


She says that the artworks she produces are due to hallucinations that only she can see, and therefore are merely copies of her hallucinations and obsessive images. This process led to her return to Japan in 1973. After attempting suicide after returning to Japan, Kusama later agrees to stay in a clinic with an art therapy provider. The artist, who has lived in this psychiatric institution for more than 40 years, spent the most productive period of her life here.



Yayoi's abstract expressionist and conceptual art with highly graphic, colorful, futuristic elements started to gain momentum from the 1990s to the 2000s, as it was compatible with the "zeitgeist" of the Internet age. Bursting with Instagram frenzy, Infinity Rooms allows you to simultaneously lose your sense of identity and self in an infinity of repetitive imagery that evokes the viewer's universe This brilliant idea is actually a product of her difficult mental illness. Throughout her life, Yayoi Kusama showed symptoms consistent with psychosis and possible schizophrenia, often associated with hallucinations and a fragmentation of the person's sense of self, leading to anxiety and paranoia, although her specific diagnosis was not disclosed. One of the common symptoms of this condition is thought projection. In other words, the person is confused as whether their thoughts are their own or whether they were placed there by other people. Yayoi incorporated this fear of disintegration into her creative production as a means of communicating with all people, rather than letting go of it. By embedding this frightening feeling into beautiful images, she created a therapeutic art space for herself.


Kusama not only left a deep mark on the contemporary art scene, but also pioneered the breaking of taboos on mental health. She went over her trauma and her fears and never hid it. While receiving treatment in the clinic where she voluntarily stayed, she continued to produce. Yayoi Kusama used her art to heal and heal, not to go insane.


Dancing Pumpkin, 2020, Photo: Robert Benson

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