Part I: Gush.
Sometimes all it takes for an artist is a show – it arrives at the perfect moment and can serve as a fuel for future creative reflection extending well beyond the original encounter. Such has been my experience peering into the world of Yayoi Kusama.* The inspiration derived from seeing the diverse body of work (and media) of an artist insistent on asserting an authentic, personal vision (one which not so paradoxically turns out to be deeply resonant for the many), is unparalleled. I was overwhelmed by this artist’s impressive body of work, her years of dogged pursuit, dedication, and perseverance, not to mention her non-binary, multifaceted defiance of any outside attempt to categorize or pigeon-hole her work and life. There was something very pointed and powerful for me in this individual’s career and life, in spite of her struggles along the way. And she continues to create in the face of it all, including, surely, an acute awareness of her own mortality as she transitions into her 10th decade.
I feel certain art-making is Yayoi Kusama’s way of transmuting her suffering (chaos, confusion, pain, alienation, etc.). This must be, in part, why her work and life are so interesting to inhabitants of the chaotic early 21st century. It really speaks to the entire spectrum of the human condition across time and place but which finds its most unrestrained expression in the digital era: self-indulgence, self-transcendence, hopes, fears, failure, success, struggle, resistance, outrage, protest, surrender, highs, lows, light, dark, expansion, contraction, contradiction, loud, quiet, hard, soft, contemplative, monkish, introspective, riding the continuum of an life through successive waves of profound confusion and self-doubt as well as profound insight and self-acceptance.
I was and still am enveloped.
Part II. Layers, Siftings and Further Musings in a Transitional Era.
Yayoi Kusama’s work will continue to stimulate my thinking in a variety of ways for months to come, but as I am now constantly grappling with art/craft/making in an era of increasing resource limits and crisis-level climate alterations, I also wanted to look at her work through a more narrow lens. Regardless of what we all personally “believe”/accept about climate change, we are approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity (i.e., its capacity to carry humans in our current configuration) on many resource fronts. This has implications for every aspect of human life, but in the context of creative endeavor generates many deep and serious questions, not the least of which are: Is it possible to, and how can we, develop a sensibility in our making that can integrate and nurture humanity, other species, as well as the environment we share? And what does an “aesthetic of sustainability” look like and, importantly, can that become as universally embraced as the fossil-fuel driven aesthetic seems to be today? One might ask if these questions and their answers even matter at all, but I think the do. It is my belief that their answers can contribute to how successfully we collectively respond to our many current and future challenges.
We don’t need to look too far into the past to find a time when sustainable making was the only kind of making. Today many draw attention to, for example, wabi-sabi and related aesthetic concerns as antithetical rescue remedies for the excesses of the industrially created artifact: something rustic, direct, uncomplicated, salvaged, organic, entropy-embracing. As I reflect on Kusama-world, I am struck by how much our expectations and aesthetic values are outgrowths of the instant-gratification, fossil-fuel -driven world we all inhabit, and how her work is quite possibly this waning era’s most vivid and exuberant expression.
From a materials standpoint alone, Kusama’s work is saturated with acrylic paint, a wide range of plastics and other petroleum-derived components, as well as vast arrays of electric light. These are the materials for the vast majority of 20th and early 21st century artists/designers/makers. These are also peak fossil-fuel-consumption-era materials, by-products of processes contributing to habitat-degrading greenhouse gas emissions. Include the energy and resources embedded in manufacturing these materials and components, the embedded and operational energy of a large scale exhibition of this type and its mass-manufactured “swag” (which, as a child of this space/time I will admit to being attracted), and the energy embedded in the cloud-dependent mass social-media feeds (to which I am also a steady contributor and participant), and we have a completely unsustainable model …unless of course we can very quickly (like, yesterday) develop an energy source dense enough to match the miracle of fossil-fueled energy, one that doesn’t destroy the habitability of our planet!
It is a poignant moment. I am clearer than ever as an artist/designer/maker as to my own purpose and vision and how to manifest it; I am also increasingly aware that I need to find new (or return to earlier) ways of creating to reduce my ecological footprint. Rhetorical question: Are the imperative to create and the imperative to reduce my footprint mutually exclusive?
We live in an era of dissonance at many levels of our lives. We attempt to hold many truths which are ultimately mutually exclusive. So it is for fossil fuels: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. This fact is one source of a host of misunderstandings and conflicts, of mis- and mal- investment, of alienation from wealth and power on one end of the spectrum and the dense consolidation of wealth and power on the other. In an era of transition, we will be looking for ways to hold on to whatever we can of the by-products of this energy system, even if to do so endangers our core support system. We hope something will come along to save us before we are forced to make hard choices. This dissonance can be paralyzing, and it shows no signs of abating as new generations come of age. It suggests a repeating “error” code firing in our brains coupled with an increasingly dysfunctional “reset” switch.
And so it is, at the likely twilight of fossil-fuel driven exuberance, that Yayoi Kusama’s work is a beautiful, joyous, riotous, inspiring symbol of life. Her work and being are also about persistence and resilience. I think we flock to its material abundance and ebullience for comfort and affirmation in an uncertain age. I love the show for this but I am also sobered by it because it reminds me of the hard work ahead. We artists and makers especially must work to realize a new, unified, resilient vision of person and planet and stay the course in the same way that Kusama has continued to work her entire life to realize her unique vision – it’s demanding, arduous and on-going. That is the nature of making/creating, of life and work….And it’s all-hands-on-deck now. K.C.
Images: My own, taken during the show (except from the large composite above: a friend captured the frequently elusive shot from the Dots Obsession viewer): some composites of highlights; my digital montage of Kusama’s celluloid montage, and mash-up selfies from The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away and Phalli’s Field.
*Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors! is showing now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta – I received a gift invitation to the show or I would not have made it at all as tickets are, alas, sold out. However, there are numerous windows into this show and her work on YouTube and elsewhere on the fabulous Internet. Check it out!