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Seeing and wearing dots: Yayoi Kusama, fashion and art

I came face-to-face with artist Yayoi Kusama in Omotesando Hills in Tokyo…

Kusama model Louis Vuitton Shop Tokyo.… that is a model of the octogenarian artist who is now window dressing across the world. Kusama with her signature dots has become Marc Jacob’s muse for his Louis Vuitton collection.  Her art, which has never been confined to the gallery, has taken over the department store, and a few weeks ago a pop-store appeared in Selfridges in London designed as her iconic pumpkin sculpture.

Kusama-inspired Louis Vuitton fashion collection

Kusama is not the first artistic collaboration for Marc Jacobs, previously working with Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Marakami but this is the most extensive, including sponsoring her Tate Modern retrospective earlier this year. This exhibition showed her extensive creative output over a 60-year career and the breadth of media, from sculpture, drawing and paintings to installations, performance art and fashion.

As one of the most recognisable female “celebrity” artists in the world with fashion as part of her artistic repertoire, it is understandable that designers would want to collaborate. Indeed the meeting of art and fashion is not new from Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist creations to the postmodern circularity of Campbell’s soup creating paper dresses à la Andy Warhol. Before the Louis Vuitton collection, Kusama had put her name to other commercial products such as lip gloss and, as a popular artist, her work is embossed on scarves and bags, perhaps more for tourists than high fashionistas.

Art, fashion and commerce had already combined for Kusama back in the 1960s. With financing of $50,000, the Kusama Fashion Company was established with her clothes on sale at 400 stores across America, including Bloomingdales. Her range was designed for the sexual revolution – dresses with circular cut-outs and holes in the breast and rear, and some designed for more than one person to party. Just as in her other artistic output she tried to eradicate the boundary between self and other through fashion. In her autobiography she says that her stock was in demand from the Jackie O crowd and that, “All the clothes I designed and produced were, of course, decorated with polka dots”. The  images below illustrate the dots in her sculptures, taken in Naoshima, Japan.

Kusama dots closeup.

Kusama red and black pumpkin.

Kusama dots

The Louis Vuitton collection is all about the dots too. After a nervous breakdown as a teenager, Kusama has lived with psychological trauma and has been in a psychiatric hospital since the 1970s of her own volition. During hallucinations, she says that dots multiply covering her field of vision threatening to overwhelm her. Her art has been therapy to help control these feelings and she puts the viewer firmly in her hallucinatory world, often in the domestic setting. In one of her installations, children are invited to stick brightly coloured dots in a white room – the blank canvas.  When you visit the Louis Vuitton website, red dots flash before your eyes and so a consumer of fashion, you’re positioned in Kusama-land.

I first entered Yayoi Kusama’s head in Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” could only be entered two by two. Immediately the queue added to the aura of the experience and anticipation at seeing in the box. Inside, we found a hall of mirrors with water on the floor and dots of lights that sparkle off into infinity. The installation made me feel slightly off-balance, wanting to reach out but fearing slipping. Perhaps I wasn’t given into Kusama’s art process where she tries to understand her place in the universe through “self-obliteration”.

“My desire was to predict and measure infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position in it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming in the negative spaces in the net… I wanted to examine my own life. One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything – myself, other, the entire universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulates of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness.”

Fashion is sold more in terms of the drive for self-expression than self-obliteration. The Kusama persona and her style became an intrinsic part of the installations as she was self-consciously photographed in front of her sculptures in similarly patterned clothing so that the distinction between self and world dissolves. In advert for the Louis Vuitton collection below, the model stands in for Kusama and the dots of the clothing merge with the background.

Kusama raincoat Louis Vuitton

Department store art

The visual merchandising of the collection takes lessons from Kusama’s work. In her autobiography she says that “my work is a means to heal myself from psychosomatic illness. As a category of art, therefore, it did not relate to the social establishment or to fads. My art was not of the department stores window variety, where you are constantly changing the display to conform to the latest fashion – Action Painting today, Pop Art (or whatever) tomorrow.”

However, in the shop windows, we can see reproductions of her work which would not look out-of-place in the gallery, although we may read them differently there.

Kusama shop window.

Flowers recur throughout Kusama’s work from her first sketchbook of worm-eaten peonies to later psychedelic sculptures with eyes at their centre. In her early visions, she says that:

“I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.”

The scene below reminds me of an Alice in Wonderland set, with the oversized shoes and purses evoking Kusama’s distortions of scale in her later sculptures.

Kusama bags and shoes

In the 1960s, Kusama held one of her Happenings at the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in New York’s Central Park. At these events, hippies from the protest movement became a naked canvas for Kusama to paint them in dots. The rain-mac above from Marc Jacob’s collection is a playful nod to these performances as the dots almost look painted on the skin.

“I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama (who have lived for years in my famous, specially built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom. You too can join my adventurous dance of life.”

In the 1990s Kusama created a series of pumpkin sculptures, including the one photographed below in Naoshima.

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin Naoshima inspiration for Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton.

As with the flower motif, pumpkins have recurred throughout her work from early Nihonga paintings in her late teens. She says that she “was enchanted by their charming and winsome form… its solid spiritual balance.” In the Louis Vuitton collection, the pumpkin sculptures are transformed into sweet little bags and keying chains.

Fear of phallus fashion

Fashion, art and psychological obsession are again evident when she uses repeated phallic symbols as a way to work through her associated fears. In the image below, the phallus-filled cream-coloured shoes evoke a nightmarish wedding. In a similar style of repetition she created macaroni pants which illustrated her disgust of overeating and the mass-produced American food which contrasted with post-war Japan austerity. Sex and food seem inextricably linked to the fashion industry with its commodification of the former and the perfect female body starved of food, not through economic dependency, but desire for an idealised shape.

Kusama Fashion Company

This critique of mass-production becomes mass-produced as fashion albeit luxe fashion in the phallic tentacle shapes in the Louis Vuitton window display.

Kusama phallic window display

Get Kusama fashion inspiration

If like me, you only look at designer fashion and prefer to buy vintage, it’s still easy to join the fashion dots with one piece. In fact, if you make clothes, cutting out a circle or two in a summer dress (I don’t recommend in the breast or bottom) could look striking. However, perhaps it’s more “Kusama” to find your own statement “dots”. Here’s footage from one of Kusama’s happenings which almost parodies itself but contains beautiful images including one of the artist on a horse covered in dots.

What do you think about the Kusama and the Louis Vuitton collaboration? Please share your thoughts.

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