The explosive art of madness

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The explosive art of madness

Obsession, hallucination and madness have dictated -- but never consumed -- the life of Yayoi Kusama. She seems to have devoured, then propagated, the explosive energy of psychosis in the form of visual art.

Her first hallucination, at the age 10, followed her staring at a red tablecloth's floral pattern. Turning away, she retained the image, seeing it everywhere, imprinted on furniture, the ceiling, windows and herself.

Since then, Ms. Kusama has spent most of her 74 years inviting people to experience what she sees and feels through her paintings, sculptures and performances. She was one of the most influential artists of the 1960s, and is considered by some art critics to be Japan's premiere artist of the modern era.

She began receiving psychiatric treatment 40 years ago, and has lived much of the past two decades in a small room in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. She travels with an entourage of nurses and assistants.

Ms. Kusama's internationally ac-claimed works are known as "environments," according to the art critic Eric Troncy. Ten of these works, including "Narcissus Garden" (1966-2001), "Fireflies on the Water" (2000) and "Dots Obsession, New Century" (2000), will be shown in her first Korean exhibition, "Yayoi Kusama" opening tomorrow at the Artsonje Center in central Seoul.

"The gallery's entire two floors have been turned into individual rooms for visitors to experience something close to 'Alice in Wonderland,'" says Kim Sun-jung, the director of ArtSonje Center.

"Dots Obsession, New Century," bearing colorful polka dots, makes a fashion statement since polka dots have become de rigueur on runways. "Ms. Kusama considers polka dots to be the symbolic motif that has inspired her since childhood," Ms. Kim says. "The polka-dot pattern has been incorporated into clothing since the 1960s. Now polka dots, as part of the environment, will be something to experience." The rooms, filled with cartoon-like objects decorated with candy-colored polka dots, are truly wondrous in a child-like way.

"Narcissus Garden" features a mesmerizing space strewn with hundreds of Christmas mirror balls that reflect light and movement. The work was created for the 1966 Venice Biennale where Kusama "volunteered" to float 1,500 silver balls on the Venice River. Earlier, in 1993, she became the first Japanese artist to display works at the Venice Biennale, selling her balls for $2 each ?at least until the authorities banned the sales.

"I'm Here But Nothing" is a room with ordinary objects and furniture where visitors experience the frenzy of a manic mind, feeling imprisoned inside the dimly lit blue space filled with florescent polka-dot patterns.

"Stars" (2002), Ms. Kusama's latest work, is part of the Seoul exhibition. It's an enclosed room with walls that have been plastered with black fabric festooned with florescent fuscia polka dots.

Ms. Kusama was born in Japan in 1929. She moved to the United States in the late 1950s in search of her idol, Georgia O'Keeffe, and became obsessed with abstract art. She joined the avant garde movement in the '60s, working with the likes of Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. Kusama's performances, called "happenings," created a following in New York City; her productions became hits in Europe.

"After all these years, she still has amazing energy," says the architect Hiroyuki Kotaki, who helped Kusama put together three works for the Seoul exhibition and is mesmerized by her vision.


by Ines Cho

"Yayoi Kusama" runs until May 11. Artsonje Center is in Sogyeok-dong, near Gyeongbok Palace, and is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except Mondays. Admission: 3,000 won ($2.50), adults; 1,500 won, students. For information, call (02) 733-8945.
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