Yayoi Kusama’s work was heavily influenced by the hallucinations she experienced growing up, which she described as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” These visions informed all of Kusama’s work, taking place in her performances, paintings, installations, illustrations, and fashion designs. While her eccentric style of artmaking filled with polka dots and bright colors often makes its way into conversations regarding contemporary art, we notice a gap in scholarship regarding the motif of eyes within Kusama’s artwork.
While much of Kusama’s work is immersive – take, for example, LOVE IS CALLING (mirror installation and spoken poetry), Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (stuffed cotton, board, and mirror installation), and All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins (wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED) – the works where she includes eyes are restricted solely to the confines of the canvas. They don’t escape past the frame of the canvas to engulf a viewer in their physical presence. In spite of this, the repetition within the compositions in these paintings provide a more conceptual form of immersion, one that expands the two dimensions they are contained in. Consider Eyes Flying in the Sky: a sea of red polka dots, the viewer is intrigued by what appears to be swimming or floating eyes scattered throughout. These paintings create a field of space similar to her immersive installations. Kusama’s I Love Eyes uses this motif to create dimensionality within the painting, they extend backwards and imply that these eyes are creating a room of their own through their positioning. And yet despite their similarity to Kusama’s polka dot installations, they sit on life size canvases, waiting to be confronted, rather than stepped into.
The closest Kusama brings the eye motif in her work to physical immersion is through the steel installation Eyes are Singing Out. In this work, large black and white eyes are installed on masses of grey paneling at Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. The installation, which stretches 90 meters in length, is positioned as a curve, one that tapers on the far-right end and grows larger and wider on the left side. When seen from an aerial view, these massive eyes, this motif that quickly identifies the work as Kusama’s style, become smaller as they progress along the installation. The installation evokes a change over time and a change across space. Accompanying the installation, the exhibition text writes:
The numerous eyes that we dreamed about have spread into the whole sky, carrying with them a message of visual sensation.
It is a message of world peace and the overflowing happiness of humankind we have been praying for all the time
There is no end to the glorification of the peoples around the world.
Their beautiful souls, having turned into hundreds of millions of eyes, continue to watch our future.
These eyes will keep on singing out louder and louder that love is forever and infinite, to the ends of the universe.
Written by Kusama, the exhibition text reveals a lot about what the eye motif within Kusama’s work means to her. She begins by highlighting that these are the eyes that we dreamed about—a subconscious creation in our minds. The subconscious is the part of our mind that is not currently of focal awareness, but that in these moments of rest come to the forefront of our attention. At the same time, dream takes the meaning of something we hope for, a yearning for future change. Within Eyes are Singing Out, the eye motif functions through both definitions of the term.
Kusama once said in an interview, “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieved my illness is to keep creating art.” She continues, “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.” When one considers the pain, anxiety, and fear that Kusama had to navigate amidst the confusion and disorientation she felt within her hallucinations, the motif of polka dots takes on a new meaning. Throughout her work, the polka dots begin to transform into the image of eyes, representing the escape and relief she sought throughout her life. They are a symbol of hope; a hope that she found through the act of making art. Throughout Eyes Are Singing Out, she extends this dream for her hope to fill the world, to extend past the confines of the canvas into real space. They offer a grounding reassurance of the hope for the happiness of humankind, particularly when viewed from above. When we feel separated from the Earth, from the people surrounding us, to look down and confront this mass of eyes, this symbol of the possibility of future, there’s a feeling of connectedness that grounds us from our disillusion with the world.
Throughout our editorial, we took this symbol of hope within Kusama’s work and immersed the environment in it. Through utilizing projection of her paintings, we visualized the eyes “singing out louder and louder,” creating an environment that feels infinite. We allow her symbol to stretch to the ends of the universe. We aimed to ingulf the body with the minimalist and abstract eyes that fill the page. This reimagination of Kusama’s paintings are a way to ground viewers in her interior sense of hope found through art. By entering her world of infinite hope for beautiful souls watching us, guiding us into the future, we can access another side of Kusama’s interior world. Not only one filled with this disillusionment, disorientation, and hallucination that she experienced throughout her life, but her escape out of this interior world. As they say, “eyes are the window to the soul,” for Kusama, this saying reigns true.
Creative Direction Shaelee Commettant, Nicole Farnsley
Photographs Alex McLaughlin, Sydney Hou
Stylists Peyton Moore
Featuring Danielle Bryden
Armour Magazine Season 29 — F/S 2023