Peace & Love

Yayoi Kusama Contemplates Life and Death in Technicolor

The Japanese artist may be 84 years old, but she’s not slowing down. In a new exhibition, Kusama explores her twilight years in bold colors and flashing LED lights.

Gautier Deblonde/Courtesy of David Zwirner

In an art-world coup earlier this year, New York gallery David Zwirner poached Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama from Gagosian Gallery, one of the biggest art powerhouses in the world. Kusama’s last show in New York was just over a year ago in July 2012, when her monumental retrospective made a stop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and her trademark polka dots popped up in a Louis Vuitton collection. For her first exhibition with David Zwirner, the artist took over all three of the gallery’s spaces in Chelsea—only the second time that has happened. Titled I Who Have Arrived in Heaven, the show debuts a new body of work by the 84-year-old artist as she contemplates the final years of her life.

Kusama emerged from the psychiatric hospital in Tokyo where she lives by choice to come to New York for the occasion. The artist, who arrived for the opening of the exhibition wearing an electric red wig and a black and yellow polka-dotted frock that she created, spread her message of peace and love to the audience.

“More and more I think about the role of the arts, and as an artist, I think that it’s important that I share the love and peace,” said Kusama through a translator as she greeted a room filled with press and art-world cognoscenti. “I would like to work with you together to make that happen, to deliver the joy of the art and love and peace to people who are suffering and don’t have the opportunity to enjoy the joy of the art.”

Joyful is certainly one adjective that can be used to describe her latest works. Kusama, who admitted that she still sometimes works until 3 a.m., painted approximately 30 new large-scale square canvases this year. Rife with bright colors, her new pieces forgoe her signature polka dots for faces and eyes and are child-like in nature. Praying for Peace in the World depicts a series of crude, vibrantly hued blobs and faces with lion-like manes set against an orange backdrop. A Woman With Pink Hair shows a pink happy face sporting a hairstyle similar to Kusama, and could possibly be a self-portrait of the artist, while an array of small eyes surrounds a group of red ones to form a rough heart shape in the painting titled My Heart. “I believe that eyes are very important motifs,” said Kusama. “That’s something that can discern the peace and love.”

While the paintings show a new side of Kusama, her installations and video work are truly the stars of the show. The enchanting Infinity Mirrored Room - The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, the newest of Kusama’s immersive installations, consists of an endless twinkling assortment of pulsing LED lights in a room enclosed by mirrored walls. A shallow reflective pool allows viewers to ponder life and death as they get lost in the darkened room. The exhibition also marks the American debut of another infinity room, Love Is Calling, which involves a dark, mirrored room filled with vividly blinking tentacle-like spotted forms sprouting from both the floor and ceiling.

The most revelatory part of the show is the piece Manhattan Suicide Addict, a video projection shown on a massive 12-foot screen flanked by two mirrors, where the artist sings an original song about her experience dealing with depression and mental illness—which she has battled her entire life—as a series of her artworks flow behind her.

“I’m here today from that institution and the doctor made me carry the pills to help me as well,” said Kusama. “I think I will be able to, in the end, rise above the clouds and climb the stairs to heaven, and I will look down on my beautiful life.”

Could the work she created for this exhibition be what she thinks she may see once she passes away? Quite possibly. After all, exhibition is titled I Who Have Arrived in Heaven.

Yayoi Kusama’s I Who Have Arrived in Heaven is on display at David Zwirner through December 21.