Review by Graham Johnstone
Yayoi Kusama, may not be as established in the art pantheon as earlier artist biography subjects Vincent, Pablo and Rembrandt, but she’s a phenomenon with a massive social media following, and queues round the block for her multimedia exhibitions.
Thai/Italian Elisa Macellari’s biographical Papaya Salad explored her roots across East and West, making Kusama an inspired choice for a follow-up. Yayoi Kusama, a one-woman cultural exchange, arrived in America the decade after war with her native Japan. Macellari captures young Yayoi, as a bohemian hipster hustler, with the chutzpah to win her place in New York City’s white male art scene.
The book’s poignant and powerful opening, introduces the mental health issues that defined Kusama’s life, and drove her work. Macellari has Yayoi, and the reader, so immersed in a sea of lavender, and folkloric musings, that when the massed blossoms address her, it seems perfectly natural. Yayoi’s stream of consciousness drifting through Japanese games and stories (a crane carrying a turtle aloft) neatly foreshadow her duality of soaring artistic ambition constrained by poor mental health. Her dawning awareness of something wrong, is mirrored in ever-so-gently disorienting visuals. It’s an ambitious scene, elegantly realised. Macelleri weaves the mental health element through Kusama’s story and artwork, towards a transcendent, and satisfyingly symmetrical conclusion.
Macelleri gives equal attention to external events: the rigid traditions of Japan; New York, as dream and impoverished reality; gatecrashing the Venice Biennale; and, most beautifully, her platonic romance with complementary misfit Joseph Cornell. Each scene is vividly brought to life with narrative and visual details such as prising up her futon to hide her art from her disapproving mother. She sews Yen notes into the hems of her kimonos, burns her drawings before leaving for America, and survives there on scavenged fish-heads.
Macellari’s clean lines and flat colours evoke the Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts exemplified by Hokusai’s iconic wave. It’s most explicit in the swaying rivers and supple trees of her rural upbringing, and the moment she finds her father in flagrante. A rendering as historic erotica creates both disorientation, and distance. Urban landscapes are similarly convincing, and famous faces like Warhol and Dalí, unmistakable. An elegant sequence compares and contrasts the settings of Kusama in lush Japan and her inspiration Georgia O’Keeffe in arid New Mexico. Macellari deftly uses scale, page-design, spreads and bleeds to pull us into Kusama’s subjectivity. The restricted palette, and its creative remixing, makes every turn of the page a fresh delight.
Evocation of the subject’s artistic style, done almost subliminally on Rembrandt and Pablo, is a different challenge with Kusama’s highly abstract paintings, filmed performances, and gallery installations. Macellari’s black lines on flat colours mirror her subject’s most iconic paintings. Her stylish takes on Kusama’s performances are considered in cinematic terms, not as shot-for-shot remakes, but reimaginings. Macellari also channels Kusama’s transformations of subject-matter into incongruous media and configurations, so creating Kusama’s imagery afresh in line art, like the sea of soft-stuffed phalluses Yayoi performs amidst (cover image). Similarly, the repetition of Kusama’s recurring polka dot motifs applied in sequential art becomes a new Kusama-inspired work, that transcends imitation. The peak of this is the closing sequence, which creates the experience of a visit to one of Kusama’s Infinity mirrored art installations. We look initially, with Yayoi, into the little window, then enter the installation, and ultimately are absorbed in this ‘infinity’.
Elisa Macellari delivers a confident, well-rounded biography that brings to life the milestone events in a fascinating life, and vividly draws us into Kusama’s creative and psychological world.