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Polka dots… Yayoi Kusama interview (1998)

8 May

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MIDORI MATSUI: You went to New York in 1957, and on your own. Weren’t you lonely?

YAYOI KUSAMA: It was a war every day. It was so hard. For one thing, I had the language problem. I grew up during the Second World War, and English was prohibited. So I didn’t get the chance to study it before going to the States.

MIDORI: But you chose New York instead of Paris, when so many Japanese artists were still looking to Europe.

YAYOI: I felt New York would become the center. I was attracted to its energy, and the timing was perfect. I came when a new artistic wave was starting all over America. I didn’t know a soul in New York, so I wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe. Her advice was that I must show everyone my paintings and must sell them. So I went out every day and showed my paintings to whomever I met. Donald Judd was the first person who bought a painting. He paid $200 in four payments.

MIDORI: And he was the first person to write about your work.

YAYOI: When I met him he was still a student, a writer rather than a visual artist. I would never have imagined that he would become famous. When he started making artwork, he would come to my studio asking, “Yayoi, what do you think of this color? Which do you think is better?”

MIDORI: Was there a real artists’ community in New York back then?

YAYOI: Definitely. We were all poor but enthusiastic. We would go to a restaurant and pick up the bread they threw out. I would have nothing in the icebox for days. Eva Hesse also lived nearby, and she frequently dropped in to talk. I miss her. She was so sincere and really devoted to her art.

MIDORI: In the early ’60s, you were making all-over “Net-paintings.” There is a photo of you standing in front of one painting that is the entire length of the wall — more than thirty feet. Can you talk about how they developed?

YAYOI: As I was painting, absorbed, I realized that the net was spilling over the desk. I said, “Oh, my god.” So finally, I was painting on the floor. And then, one day, when I woke up, I found a red net covering the window. “What’s this?” I said, and went up to the window, and found the net covering my hand. The net was all over the place, up to the ceiling. When I looked at the furniture, it was all covered with the net. The entire room was covered with red net.

MIDORI: And from there you went on to do room-sized works — installations of soft sculptures?

YAYOI: Yes, I have a series of works called Sex Obsession in which I make many stuffed cloth phalluses and sew them onto various things. My first Sex Obsession piece was One Thousand Boats Show, exhibited in the museum in Amsterdam in 1965. That was when the concept of my Net-painting was officially transferred to the three-dimensional medium of soft sculpture. At that time, I was really poor. So, I took my sheets and sewed together numerous phalluses on a second-hand sewing machine, filled them with the stuffing from the armchair I found in the junkyard, and attached them to various things in my room — burying my room under those luxuriating protrusions.

MIDORI: What do you mean by Sex Obsession? Were you afraid of sex?

YAYOI: Yes, I was. My family was really conservative, really uptight. I was really afraid of sex. It was a big taboo. I liberated myself from the fear by creating these works. Their creation had the purpose of healing myself.

MIDORI: We usually try to eliminate what we are afraid of, putting it out of our sight and consciousness.

YAYOI: I cured myself of my obsessions by confronting them.

MIDORI: You also have a series of works entitled Self-Obliterations in which you cover everything with polka dots. How is the idea of Self-Obliteration related to that of Sex Obsession?

YAYOI: They are related, ultimately, through the image. You know, if there’s a cat, I obliterate it by putting polka dot stickers on it. I obliterate a horse by putting polka dot stickers on it. And I obliterated myself by putting the same polka-dot stickers on myself. We did a Happening at the Village Gate where people painted each other with polka dots with fluorescent paint under black light, and colorful lights flickered. You would see the dots, but all the outlines were obliterated in the darkness.

MIDORI: How did you feel being obliterated? Was it scary or groovy?

YAYOI: It was groovy.


YAYOI: Because I really hated myself.

MIDORI: Really? But I saw the picture in which you lie down in the sea of silver phallic sculptures, nude except for the high heels you were wearing. You looked so pretty, like a nymph.

YAYOI: I hated myself. But I was truly healed by the art I was making. Art enabled me to open up my heart, to face my own difficult character. Up to then, I was under the influence of the repressive education of my mother. I was afraid of everything. I was beaten several times a day, pushed around by her. She would set up a marriage to some rich local boy for me, trying to force me to marry a man I’d never met. She controlled everything about me. And when I deviated from her codes, she would be furious and drag me by the hair. She even restricted what I could or could not wear.

MIDORI: The dresses you wore during the ’60s look so charming.

YAYOI: I made my dresses. I was angry then, so I smeared red and white paint over them.

MIDORI: You also made many clothing pieces, with flowers and phalluses sewed on. Are these flowers dahlias?

YAYOI: Yes. I imagined becoming one of the flowers. The performance was called Dahlia Obliteration. In another performance, I walked holding an umbrella shaped like a flower.

MIDORI: You also made Food Obliteration pieces?

YAYOI: Yes, using macaroni. Just thinking of the several thousand macaroni dishes I consumed during my lifetime really pierced me with fear. You can neither die nor live with ease. You just keep eating or making love until the very day of your death, as though you were being carried along on a conveyor belt. I was really afraid of that. And it was very hard to cure myself of that fear. I got into psychotherapy in the States. But then, taking apart my obsessions by psychoanalysis dried up my creative energy. It was just a dissection. So, finally, I left behind making objects and started doing Happenings.

MIDORI: So, analytical dissection was no good?

YAYOI: I only needed art therapy.

MIDORI: In your case, eliminating what you fear is no solution. You must keep using what you fear as your artistic material over and again in order to be cured of your obsession.

YAYOI: Right.

MIDORI: You know, those clothes you made in the ’60s — see-through dresses sprinkled with polka dots, silver or gold dresses adorned with dahlias, shoes with phallic protrusions and handbags laden with macaroni — are really popular with young people today. Nowadays, fashion-conscious people pay a lot for dresses like yours.

YAYOI: Oh, really? Maybe I made them too early.

MIDORI: And you also had your own fashion label at the time.

YAYOI: Yes, in 1968, in New York. I was window-shopping and found some dresses that looked like my creations. So I went to the company that manufactured those dresses to show them my work. I said, “I’m making these dresses which look exactly like yours.” I ended up establishing a company with them. It was called Kusama Fashion Company Ltd.

MIDORI: You made these dresses with the holes.

YAYOI: Yeah, right in the butt, too.

MIDORI: But Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garsons got famous by making dresses with holes! You were making these dresses back in the ’60s. You sold them in the Kusama Corner at Bloomingdales.

YAYOI: Yes, but my flower child dresses sold very poorly. Conservative suits sold very well. It was so hard to sell avant-garde dresses with holes.

MIDORI: You also made a very unusual wedding gown at the time.

YAYOI: Yes, I presided over what must have been the first wedding party between two gay men in America. I made a dress for two, that is, a dress that two people could wear together. And for the ceremony, instead of a Bible, we used the New York City Telephone Book.

MIDORI: In this picture you’re wearing polka dots in your hair and on your stockings. Were they made with paints?

YAYOI: These were made with Liquitex acrylic. Street performances were a lot of fun. We had awesome press coverage. At one time, I was even more famous than Andy Warhol.

MIDORI: Where did you do your Happenings?

YAYOI: In front of the statue of Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, and on Wall Street, and in front of the Statue of Liberty. We also did our open protest against the Nixon Administration at the voting office and the anti-war performance in front of the UN. This is the dress made for the Love Orgy. It’s one big dress for four people, with holes cut for sticking out heads and arms. I myself have never joined a sex orgy. I was afraid of venereal disease.

MIDORI: But this dress makes me think of people from different backgrounds coexisting peacefully, rather than a love orgy. I love this picture of you leaning on the horse. You and the horse are united through the polka dots. It looks as though your hearts are united. So despite the negative association of “self-obliteration,” the project seems to have a really positive feeling.

YAYOI: That’s right. I didn’t consciously cultivate that aspect at that time. But I always had the theme, Love Forever.

MIDORI: In this picture, many young people are dancing.

YAYOI: That performance was done in a discotheque. It united ritual and party. There was also the Happening at a theater in Cooper Square — some of our models wore police uniforms and barged in on us in the middle of our orgy, threatening to arrest us all. So the rest of us gathered around them, stripped them naked and smeared polka dot stickers on them. That was part of the show.

MIDORI: Did you hire the actors?

YAYOI: I recruited them and paid them. But many people came to be auditioned, and some offered to do it for free. Some of the audience got excited watching the performance and started taking off their clothes, asking me to put polka dots on them. This picture shows us performing in front of the statue of Alice in Wonderland. Each of us wore makeup, impersonating Lyndon Johnson, Che, Castro, Marilyn. In this Happening in front of the Internal Revenue Service, we protested against wasting our tax money on the Vietnam War. The statue of George Washington seems to be begging us to wait a minute, with his hand holding us back. This is a scene from our love-in, which was also made into a video. It’s me standing on the rock, in the middle of the nude performance. As the policemen came to arrest us, we made a barricade. They couldn’t catch us.

MIDORI: I saw that in the video, with everyone protecting you and you skittering like a fairy.

YAYOI: But we were finally caught on another occasion. The police were watching us with binoculars from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. They were so puritanical even then.

MIDORI: Going back to your painting, there are dots and circles of many sizes. According to the color and density of the dots your paintings look like they’re turning and wavering. Especially with your Net-paintings, I can feel the surface of the canvas surging up against me.

YAYOI: Waves are naturally generated as I paint, and that has a very good effect on me. For example, this yellow dot-painting that Frank Stella owns has patterns resembling the ripples of water. Such effects are really good for me, making me feel rhythm and vibration. I was producing about a hundred paintings and drawings every day in the early ’60s. You know, I never learned painting at school. In my New York days, I registered at an art school in order to secure my visa. But I was so busy painting in my studio that I hardly went to school.


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MIDORI: This work, The Galaxy In My Dream, reminds me of the bottom of the ocean.

YAYOI: This is the sea bottom and these luminous things are living creatures.

MIDORI: Do you dream these landscapes?

YAYOI: I always see these landscapes in my dreams, and feel happy. I desperately try to transform these dreams into artwork, so that even while napping, I construct and reconstruct various images.

MIDORI: You’ve published many novels, including Manhattan Suicide Addict, The Hustler’s Grotto of Christopher Street, and The Burning of St. Mark’s Church. I read Manhattan and was impressed by its complexity — you captured the chaotic world of New York in the ’60s while tracing your spiritual drift, mixing dream visions and events from reality. You mention many artists in the book, but one was completely crazy about you.

YAYOI: Joseph Cornell. Over there is the drawing he gave me. The old man wrote me so many letters. He was often a nuisance. He called me on the phone so often and held me on the line for so long that eventually others complained, “Yayoi, is your phone broken?” I had many other boyfriends.

MIDORI: Who were they?

YAYOI: Many were very gentle, even feminine sort of men. Some were really famous, like Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith.

MIDORI: But I feel that your true friend was Donald Judd, who had bought and written about your work.

YAYOI: He was very thoughtful and fair-minded. He was my boyfriend. When he got married, we lived in the same building — he upstairs, me downstairs. But way before then, we were lovers.

MIDORI: Your relationship with Cornell is public now, but the others …

YAYOI: I hid the fact. I was afraid of jealousy.

MIDORI: I know that you have a new novel coming out. Had you always wanted to be a writer?

YAYOI: Since I was a teenager. When I was working at a parachute factory during the war, I was dying for novels, which were so hard to come by. I wanted to be a novelist then. My new book is called Violet Obsession.

MIDORI: What’s it about?

YAYOI: It’s about a private school that takes care of children who have problems communicating with adults. Many autobiographical details from my childhood are included. My mother beat me and told the neighbors that I should not have been born. I was the only one among her children that she mistreated.

MIDORI: There are passages in Manhattan Suicide Addict where you describe your fears, and it’s very poignant, very moving. Did you think of killing yourself?

YAYOI: Very often. The impulse came to me pathologically. I suddenly saw a white curtain falling. Everything I saw receded, and I found myself trembling. I would cling to a pillar. If I moved even slightly I would run to the window and throw myself out. This phobia cannot be cured, since it’s caused by the trauma from my childhood. I got constant verbal harassment and physical punishment from my mother until I was six years old. At that age I had my first experience of seeing the white curtain come down, and violet blossoms pop out from the tablecloth. Taking medication is the only way to bring me back from this state to the normal one. When I’m in that state, I can’t go home. I have to stay in the hospital. Even now.

MIDORI: Do any of your artist friends still visit you?

YAYOI: No, hardly anybody visits me nowadays. Not for the last ten years. I receive many fan letters, though.

MIDORI: How about friends from New York?

YAYOI: Donald Judd once visited me in Tokyo. He said he would love to live here. New York has an artist community; Tokyo doesn’t. But then, if I lived in New York, I’d have to go to parties every night. I begrudge that time. You know, I must really work hard. I’m in the last stage of my artistic life. A friend from my Matsumoto childhood sometimes calls, saying that two friends pass away every year. Some of my friends have suffered from strokes. But I’m so busy that I can’t even think of dying. I fly all over the world, drive everywhere, and when I get home, I find interviewers and photographers and TV shows waiting for me. No wonder I’m so busy.

MIDORI: What kind of work do you want to make now?

AYOI: That’s a secret.


Full version

Kusama’s web

Arton (by Agnieszka Polska)

28 Jan

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The Splitting (Gordon Matta-Clarck)

28 Jan

Collyer Maison

28 Jan

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Collyer Brothers

21 Jan

Homer Lusk Collyer (November 6, 1881 – March 21, 1947) and Langley Collyer (October 3, 1885 – March 1947) were two American brothers who became famous because of their snobbish nature, filth in their home, and compulsive hoarding. For decades, neighborhood rumors swirled around the rarely seen, unemployed men and their home at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 128th Street), in Manhattan, where they obsessively collected newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to protect against intruders. Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 130 tons of waste that they had amassed over several decades.

The story of Collyer brothers

Gordon Matta-Clarck

21 Jan

u r

21 Jan

‘By now my work has become independent. It has its own inner dynamics. The sheer amount that I have built in here means that I can’t distinguish any more between what has been added and what has been subtracted. There is no way now of fully documenting what has happened in the house. The only way now would be to measure the hidden spaces. No-one could get to the original structure any more without systematically drilling apart and destroying the house. The layers of lead mean you couldn’t even X-ray it.’

‘Your perception of perfectly concrete things. Suddenly you’re only concentrating on things that once happened, on events that once were. Suddenly you see a house that used to stand in that spot. That is the baffling thing, that things that have gone nevertheless leave a trace. Near Rheydt a whole stretch of land is being dug up for open-cast mining, that’s partly where I get my materials from. Whole houses, whole villages are being torn down, little by little, and that’s when you get those sort of shifts. You are walking through the landscape when you suddenly get the feeling that there could have been a house there, because there is still a pavement there or because there are different odd trees that you wouldn’t normally find there. That is when you get the strongest sense of a time-shift. But it would be a disaster, if we really picked up on that sort of thing. We would constantly be running into walls.’

(The text is an edited transcript of a number of conversations between Ulrich Loock and Gregor Schneider, during the period November

1995 to January 1996, in Gregor Schneider’s house in Unterheydener Strasse in Rheydt and in the Kunsthalle Bern, translated by Fiona Elliott, from More is more catalogue)

The Architecture of Collection

21 Jan

‘The interior is not just the universe of the private person; it is also his etui’, wrote Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project.1 But what if we lose control of this Benjaminian universe in which objects may be free from the obligation of usefulness? In the documentary Possessed, Martin Hampton shows four hoarders whose lives have been dominated by objects and the hunt for new ‘collectable items.’ One of them says: ‘everything you want […] to buy is almost like a dream… you’ve got to have it.’ A woman who stockpiles literally everything – empty boxes, hair and cotton wool pads to name but a few – is worried what will happen when her house is completely full. She has a dream in which she sees an empty house, a bedroom with only a bed in it… she wakes up and is terrified by the rubbish around her. Her collection is the most peculiar and the most attractive in visual terms. All the items in her house are meticulously arranged; cotton wool pads form amazing organic structures. She’d earlier had an accident and could not walk, which then caused a nervous breakdown; that was when she started hoarding. The man whose story comes last in the film lives all alone, he began to hoard after his mother died. There is a note on the wall: ‘You was always there. I love you mum!’

The way syllogomaniacs arrange the space around them is extraordinarily interesting and complex. Objects began to fill up their apartments until a peculiar architecture materializes – a landscape of accumulated things, useless for the most part. Inevitably, this situation reaches its culmination when there is no room for the owner any more. Space that should be a comfortable, secure and well-organized shelter, suddenly gets out of control and its function becomes distorted. However, the processes that unfold before the eyes of the constructor are not instantaneous; they result from systematic work, as in the case of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau.

Leszek Kołakowski wrote a story called Looking for Lailonia about two brothers trying to rediscover a lost country. They buy all the maps and globes they can find and these gradually take over their flat. Eventually the brothers have to radically reorganize the space in which they live: ‘our apartment was so full of various atlases, maps and globes that it became impossible to move about in it. […] we began throwing out the furniture; […] We did this until the apartment was quite bare of everything except maps and globes, and among these my brother and I squeezed our way with the greatest difficulty. We also took medicine of various kinds to make us thinner so that we would take up less space in the apartment and thus make room for more maps. We both grew very thin and began to eat less and less, partly because we had to have room for the maps and partly because we could no longer afford to buy food, as all our money was being spent on atlases, globes and maps. It was very hard work indeed and it took us several years, during which we did nothing else at all.’2 

For Benjamin, the need to hoard is one of the symptoms precipitating death.3 There is a hypothesis that compulsive hoarding develops from traumatic experiences, from the fear of losing one’s possessions. It is a reaction to a system, war or another event. It turns out that the architecture of accumulation’ itself may be lethal. Photographs taken in the house of the Collyer brothers, obsessive hoarders in New York, are a perfect example of an overwhelmingly dysfunctional space. The chaotic buildup of rubbish eventually killed the brothers; it crushed Langley Collyer to death. While his body was being eaten by rats, his paralyzed and blind brother Homer was starving.4

As time goes by, the logics behind the collection, and the urge to add to it, grow obscure to everyone except its owner. The structure formed by collected items and the collection per se seem septic, vulnerable to the passing of time and unwanted destruction. Afflicted by endless transfigurations, they are invaded by maggots and rats. It is not easy to control the multiplying layers of the burrow where all that remains to be done is the hollowing out of communication passages. The house takes on the appearance of an organic and bodily structure. On the one hand, the place is ‘cosy’; a psychoanalytic perspective would liken it to the secure female womb. On the other hand, its Sartrerian viscosity (le visqueux) evokes repulsion. For the constructor, the place is like a gold mine, each element is important in the context of the collection as well as the onstruction.

The analogy between a burrow or a hollow, and interiors inhabited by syllogomaniacs, is also justified within the context of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. Structures raised by Schwitters in his successive houses had ‘grottoes’ where he hid all sorts of objects, scraps and leftovers. It is indeed scraps and leftovers that are considered distinctly abject because of their incompleteness; they are associated with dirt and impurity.

In his film Zezziminnegesang, John Bock suggests a direct connection between behaviours evoking aversion and compulsive hoarding. The camera moves through an apartment riddled with curious collections, observing the strange and ‘perverse’ rituals of its owner. Bock smears an egg on his abdomen, opens tin cans with the most unusual tools, and finally pukes in the toilet and scratches the sticky skin of the skeleton which he finds in his bed. Kristeva writes: ‘It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.’5 

Bock’s grotesque rituals are abhorrent but they also induce laughter, a method of placing or displacing aversion. Kristeva claims: ‘For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic.’6

Kristeva’s description of an exile who asks ‘Where am I?’ rather than ‘Who am I?’ perfectly illustrates the situation of syllogomaniacs. Bock’s protagonist leaves the house in the end, carrying the skeleton in his arms. He escapes into nature. The protagonist in Jordi Colomer’s film, a dwarf woman, is also missing from her flat, obstructed by shoe boxes and jam jars. May a work terrify its creator? It might be that there comes a moment in the life of the architect when the only solution is to escape from what he they have created.


1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin MacLaughlin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 20.

2 Leszek Kołakowski, Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven, translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska and Salvator Attanasio, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1989, pp. 3-4.

3 Walter Benjamin, op.cit., p. 897.

4, date of access: 9 June 2010.

5 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia UP, New York 1982, p. 3.

6 Ibid., p. 5.

From: More is More catalogue

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