Content originally featured in RE: SHE zine in collaboration with the Bell Gallery.
A year ago, on the occasion of Yayoi Kusama’s sensational return to New York, the David Zwirner Gallery debuted, among other works, two of her famous ‘infinity rooms.” Strung with LED lights and reflected through mirrored panels, these glittery tableaus provided the perfect venue for the postmodern medium of the selfie, prompting a swell of attention indexed in a mass of Instagram posts and a coordinate accumulation of social capital.
The art cynic might note the darker tendencies of Kusama’s oeuvre, driven in part by her hallucinations, obsessions, and suicidal thoughts. That her manic rush of colors would prompt such relentless celebrations of the self surfaces the still needling questions of aesthetics and intentionality, or of how an artist’s consciousness informs her viewers. Perhaps more pressingly, Kusama’s art asks how affects and experiences bump up against each other, driving its observers to tumble through the psychic swings of earnestness and suspicion, mania and depression, and exploring the ways these diametric conditions comingle.
Is there any more present an artist than Yayoi Kusama to raise the conflicting registers of self-representation, self-care, and self-harm?
Kusama’s self-portrait in the She exhibition is, by the measures of critical attention, a notably less showy piece than her famed light rooms, in part for its ironic incapacity to stage the perfect profile picture. But even as one of her lesser-known works, the piece’s subtleties bely its triangulated attention to the limits of self-representation and its aesthetic strategies.
Her portrait is one that notably places the category of self under erasure, composed of Kusama’s signature polka dots, which she has referred to as a kind of effacing virus. Her vast, multimedia portfolio is in fact marked by an enduring interest in performances of ‘self-obliteration,’ as the title of her 1967 experimental film indicates. Through this representation of the subject as a collection of points, the portrait diffuses into a state of near-misrecognition.
Kusama’s self-obliterating aesthetic dovetails neatly with the contemporary or newly-valorized tactics of entropy as resistive strategy, referring, chiefly, to the queer, feminist, and critical race theories that would subject sociality to its own critical undoing. In undermining the mythologies of agency on which the subject is fatally premised, the marginal and minor achieve their darkest fantasies of self-obliteration, ironically fulfilling the colonial and heteronormative prophecies of the monstrous destroyer—which stoke suspicion of the ego-less agent, the living dead, and their coming insurrection.
Organized now into their own hybrid forms, afro-pessimists, queer nihilists, and feminist killjoys undertake the self-effacing project of unmooring name from identity, identity from biography, and biography from profile or profession. Through extravagant embrace of those ugly and inflicted states of abjection, they wield a kind of hideous power and sexy badness.
The self-portrait that seeks self-obliteration conjures up those lingering superstitions of the spontaneous disappearance or alien abduction, enlisting the spectral as a site of critical absence. To stand in for the ephemeral, to project that flight into the dispersed void is at once to signify this fear of the unknown, and also to gesture at a brighter something else, retained, perhaps, in the undeniable exuberance of Kusama’s pieces, which can uplift as much as unsettle.
Kusama’s recourse to ego death, a move made from mimetic self-portrait to a constellation of dots, does not foreclose a reparative potential. Her work, for all of its fits of obsessions with unstable psychic formations and erasure, holds fast to a residual acknowledgment of life as motivator for art practice, and as a motivator still worth recuperating.
To look again at a culture that still sings praises of the heroic agent, we discover in Kusama’s work what appears to be the obliteration of self, and yet discover in her portrait its ethical, political, and therapeutic urgencies. For all those struggling with the theories of erasure, for all those negotiating the limits of desire and freedom, Kusama provides an aesthetic rubric for wrestling with a lived existence, all while never losing sight of how it can be tenuously celebrated. When suspicious minds confront structural inequities, inured to the injustices of the everyday, Kusama’s work asks where the self is situated in this maddened mass, and how it disappears in uncomfortable and heartening ways.