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VANISHING POINT Brook Hsu on Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama’s Louis Vuitton Collaboration, 2023

Yayoi Kusama’s Louis Vuitton Collaboration, 2023

Like her trademark dots, Yayoi Kusama has – for quite a while now – seemingly been all over the place. She had major retrospectives at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, at Gropius Bau in Berlin and, most recently, at Hong Kong’s M+, as well as a spectacular exhibition at the Zwirner gallery in New York. Earlier this year, Louis Vuitton collaborated with the Japanese artist and launched an excessive marketing campaign that generated tremendous hype on social media; this not only boosted Kusama’s mainstream presence, it also triggered accusations of exploiting the nonagenarian, who has been voluntarily living in a psychiatric facility since the 1970s. In her essay for TEXTE ZUR KUNST, the painter Brook Hsu expresses her personal admiration for the artist’s influential oeuvre and points to transgressive themes of obliteration and death while trying to make sense of Kusama’s current omnipresence.

It’s funny to be writing about Yayoi Kusama, David Zwirner, and Louis Vuitton on the day I’ve returned from a long pack trip in the mountains of Wyoming. I’m sitting at the hospital because my boyfriend got kicked by our friend’s wild mustang and his tibia is shattered. Hoping his surgery goes smoothly, I am glad to be able to write to distract myself from my worries. Gosh, so much in my life has shifted since the winter! I guess I say it’s funny to write about the viral popularity of Yayoi Kusama because I’ve been so far removed from the art world, fashion, and social media. I’ve been detached from it for a while now.

Kusama is an artist I looked up to when I was younger. I remember reading once that she wrote letters to other artists when she was trying to find confidence in herself and even Georgia O’Keeffe wrote her back! So, when I moved to New York from Kansas City and was desperate for work and to find footing, I wrote letters to other artists too. I remember writing one to On Kawara, asking if he could let me know if he was still alive. He was still alive at the time, but passed soon after the letter was posted. I wrote one to Elizabeth Murray not knowing she had already died a couple of years prior. And I wrote one to Aki Sasamoto not knowing her address, so it never got posted. Needless to say, not one of them wrote me back.

I ask myself why I am now living in Wyoming, and I feel shy to acknowledge the intrepid American in me that stubbornly believes in freedom. It’s been my great search and it’s in moments like these I find it: I feel connected to material and experience to such a degree that I’m no longer driven by choice. I’ve called my deepest connection to life through art “complete annihilation.” And I wonder now (realizing some similarities), Is my annihilation just redundant or is it an attempt to evolve from Kusama’s self-obliteration? Perhaps this is the fate of an artist: our lives are bound to our art without any concrete reason. Since moving to Wyoming eight months ago, I feel a different perspective in regard to this sometimes-frustrating union. I spend my days in a new simplicity. Sometimes I’ll ride horses into the surrounding mountains with friends, searching for new views to draw and paint. At night I hear the forest speak to me. I saw whitewater rapids glow under the full moon while listening to the soft pounding of rocks move along the river floor. One time a great grizzly bear visited our camp at dusk, which filled me with both fear and excitement. Even though I always feel one turn can lead to death, I find myself at peace.

Being immersed in a new landscape left its mark on me. There’s a history here that I want to engage with. Wyoming was made famous by painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; the place was a tall tale before their works brought color and scale to fantastical descriptions. Alongside their paintings were William Henry Jackson’s photographs, and together these works may have helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the country’s first national park. [1] And to this day I think Wyoming sits in the psyche of many people … like it remains in our imagination as the last frontier or something. We call it “cowboy country” and it just has a lore and allure about it you can’t really shake. Now, Wyoming is a major tourist destination, especially in regard to Yellowstone National Park, which is a selfie stomping ground. If you go, you find yourself amongst all these people taking pics with the buffalo, antelope, and bears and not being very smart and sometimes getting injured or killed by the wildlife. [2] One doomed visitor seems to have been boiled alive in the thermal pools. [3] Traffic is surprisingly bad. It defies expectations to see such a landscape so crowded. What are all these people after? I wonder if they feel at one with this place and if they are aware of the precarity of survival and the possibility of an untimely death. Are these deaths representative of a kind of obliteration?

For years, the major premise of Kusama’s work has been self-obliteration through the notion of becoming one with many, where we are “returned to the natural universe.” [4] Her most useful tool in expressing this is the polka dot, as Kusama explains that “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environments.” [5] The word infinity, as Kusama uses it, seems a stand-in for death. The line that wraps around the block to see Kusama’s show at Zwirner is a phenomenon. This willingness of individuals to crowd into her shows makes her edict feel even more like a strange premonition. I picture a sea of heads bobbing up and down, same as Kusama’s dots, fading into the infinite reflections of one of her mirrored rooms. I didn’t see the show. However, I did walk by a window display of the Vuitton collaboration and made sure to take a selfie.

While I think there is sincerity involved when artists allow their artworks to be used in fashion (having done a brand collab myself), it’s a difficult balance. Kusama has a history within her practice of painting onto clothing and accessories, producing artworks that are among my favorites of her oeuvre. To me, her hand-painted clothes are akin to ritual garments, like a shroud that carries a body into the afterlife. The clothes are some of the closest representations of what I believe Kusama intends to mean when she uses words like “obliteration,” “infinity,” and “natural universe.” Additionally, there’s a punk attitude about it. A vandalized piece of luxury fashion feels like an honest course of action in Kusama’s revolution. But the scale of her collaboration with Vuitton is so big it confounds me. With all good intentions, I can’t see what good comes of making so much Kusama stuff. I’m looking online at the purses now … the 1964 hit song by the Zombies (originally the Mustangs) “She’s Not There” is blaring over a smiling model with animated blue dots painted on her face. I’m being marketed a Kusama camera filter specifically designed to obliterate me in selfies. Imagination is operating at a severe deficit.

Paired with a show timed well with two Vuitton drops, could Kusama’s success be due to the free marketing exposure of sharing selfies? For a work like Infinity Mirrored Room (2011/17), the selfie seems antithetical to what I feel are its intentions. Yet selfies have taken over her installations. I don’t really know how to explain this, but the smartphone is starting to feel like an anti-death machine. It’s like a drug that helps us forget that we die. Throw those survival instincts out the window and scroll! Is the smartphone necessary to Infinity Mirrored Room? Not really, no. But in the case of Kusama, her work exemplifies the success of the smartphone and the curiously well-designed power it holds over people and how they spend their time. That said, I don’t think that is what the work is about. Reasoning here feels like conjecture.

The success of Kusama is to Kusama’s own credit. She took polka dots and mirrors and gave these forms new understanding. To me, seminal works like Self-Obliteration (1966–1974) and Narcissus Garden (1966–2018) are profound because of this. Looking back at her art from the 1960s also helps one notice how she developed her work to be more accessible to a broader audience. Kusama’s work can be so playful for the viewer on the most simple terms: here, stick a polka dot on something and yay, now you feel part of it! Perhaps the rise in selfies, social media, and rampant consumerism helped bring Kusama’s art into the mainstream. Whether or not this is true, she certainly doesn’t shy away from it all, as her new work seems to appeal more to the hypebeast and less to an art lover. She’s come a long way from her beginnings in the New York underground scene, staging public orgies and distributing self-published zines. [6]

My thoughts keep bringing me back to Wyoming.… This land is harsh and proves to me each day how the reality of living is often quite brutal. Pre-automobile and way before the internet, how did art manage to spark interest in people to visit this place? [7] Its shape on a map – a state that appears as a simple rectangle in the middle of a vast country ¬– doesn’t speak for its complex beauty. It always amazes me how four lines can create the boundary of a receptacle that holds so many aspirations. What is the dream that eats away at our imagination? That I might liken to either a fear of death or a fear of never dying? This draw to collectively see and experience can’t be credited to just one thing.

Similarly, Kusama cultivated her own story that has a lore and allure all its own. She writes, “My revolution of the Self, which has been such an essential part of my life so far, is all about discovering death. My destiny is to make art for my own requiem: art which gives meaning to death, tracing the beauty of colors and space in the silence of death’s footsteps and the ‘nothingness’ it promises.” [8] Say the story of Kusama is the journey of one dot into polka dots. The criticism could be that the work itself has gotten away from Kusama’s initial love decree of infinity (freedom?), that the work is a false advertisement, and that self-obliteration was never real. Or perhaps my thoughts reflect my own need to disconnect and for art to never be prescriptive. I wonder where the polka dots are no longer Kusama’s and where the self finally is obliterated. Instead of the point on the horizon where the crowd continuously vanishes into Kusama, I’m looking for the point where our desires change and Kusama truly becomes part of the crowd.

Taiwanese American artist Brook Hsu grew up in Oklahoma. She currently lives and works in New York and Wyoming.

Image credit: © Louis Vuitton


[1]See Joni Louise Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1992), 60: “Moran scholars have long agreed that the artist’s watercolor sketches were among the curiosities shown to the congressmen in the lobbying process, but invariably they have lacked irrefutable evidence to support the supposition. Indeed, the congressional records fail to mention Moran’s original work, no revealing letter from either Hayden or Moran has turned up, and most contemporary new reports comment only on Jackson’s photographs. The only convincing citation until now has been Jackson’s remark from 1929: ‘Moran has been the greatest painter of the Yellowstone, and it was his wonderful coloring, in pictures of canyons and hot springs, that made the convincing argument for their preservation for the benefit of all posterity.’ Jackson later added, ‘Back in Washington, that winter of 1871–72, in the proceedings before Congress for the creation of the Yellowstone National Park, the water colors of Moran and the photographs of the Geological Survey were the most important exhibits brought before the Committee.’”
[2]Mark Heinz, “Yellowstone Investigating Unknown Man Who Jumps Out of Car to Harass Bears,” Cowboy State Daily, June 6, 2023.
[3]Kurt Repanshek, “Details of Investigation Into Foot Found in Yellowstone Hot Spring Released,” National Parks Traveler, January 4, 2023.
[4]Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, trans. Ralph F. McCarthy (London: Tate Publishing, 2011), 73.
[5]Quoted in “Who is Yayoi Kusama,” Tate Museum website.
[6]Günseli Yalcinkaya, “A Titillating History of Yayoi Kusama’s Fascination with Orgies,” Dazed, May 26, 2020.
[7]See Noa Greenspan, “19th-Century Journal Provides Lens Into Early Days of Tourism in Yellowstone,” Open Spaces, Wyoming Public Radio, October 14, 2022: “Wilderness is often imagined as an untouched, dramatic landscape – a place to escape the human. That’s how wilderness is depicted in an 1986 photojournal that currently resides in the Princeton University archives. The author of the journal, John Henry Purdy, was a New York socialite, invited by his friend, the railroad magnate William Seward Webb, on a 30-day hunting trip to Yellowstone National Park.” See also R. Kurt Johnson, “Greetings from Wyoming: Postcards and the Tourist Culture,”, May 15, 2023: “In 1916, around 30,000 people visited Yellowstone National Park. Just 20 years later, more than 400,000 people came. Postcards offered visitors a vicarious role in the conquest of the West, one of the central narratives of American identity. These postcards present idealized versions of it. Travelers were offered the illusion of an American purity and an authentic experience.”
[8]Kusama, Infinity Net, 171–72.