Mutable Matter



A dot in the universe – Yayoi Kusama and the link between self and other


Image: the author in her natural environment

A few weeks ago, I went to the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Londoners are likely to remember her polka-dotted tree coverings along the Southbank, part of the artist’s contribution to the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Walking In My Mind’ exhibition. The Paris retrospective had a very different feel to the Southbank exhibits, even though the infamous ‘dots’ featured in both. I think I agree with the Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian that the Hayward’s focus was more on ‘immersion’ in wacky metaphorical environments, whereas the Pompidou curators seemed interested in political significance. After all, as the Pompidou exhibition catalogue points out, Kusama and her dots regularly ended up attracting police attention (which was effectively diverted through the use of bribes).


Image source: Yayoi Kusama

I have to explain that I saw the Kusama retrospective in the middle of finishing an article on Bakhtin’s ‘cosmic terror’, preparing a lecture on materiality and space, and reading Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ alongside Žižek’s ‘Welcome to the desert of the real’, so, to me, the exhibition arrived as an amazing sensual illustration of this slightly peculiar mix of theorists. On the other hand, the mix is perhaps not so peculiar, when one considers the central question that is addressed by Bakhtin, Weil, Žižek and ‘theorists of matter’: how do or should you see yourself in relation to everything else – and why does it matter?

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

A starting point for Kusama, Bakhtin, Weil and ‘matter theorist’ Karen Barad is to think about the limits of bodily boundaries. Interestingly, all of them end up making a connection to the cosmic. Karen Barad, for instance, talks about ‘meeting the universe half-way’: ‘We are of the universe – there is no inside, no outside. There is only intra-acting from within and as part of the world in its becoming.’ Basically, Karen Barad does not see bodies as defined or contained against an equally defined environment, but as intra-related with everything else (emphasis on everything). The boundaries, that seem so clearly to exist, are produced – not merely by the limited human sensory apparatus or understanding, but by matter itself. For her, this process, this generativity of matter which we are implicated in, is literally universal. To realise this intra-connectivity entails responsibility – and choices about what we do with it. As she writes:

‘Meeting each moment, being alive to the possibilities of becoming, is an ethical call, an invitation that is written into the very matter of all being and becoming.’

So, accepting oneself as part of the universe means rising to meet this ethical responsibility.

The artist in her studio (image: Shawn Mortensen)

For Bakhtin, it matters, too, how we see ourselves in relation to the universe and everything that it stands for. Most people, he suggests, are fearful of thinking of themselves as part of the universe, or even of their wider immediate environments. Rather, they choose to cling to what he terms ‘small reality’ – a false idyllic space where they are protected from the inhumanity of ‘great reality’: potential meaninglessness, sudden changes, terror, violence. In order to maintain this ‘small reality’, these people choose to cling to false promises – be they of a religious or political nature – which, in turn, empower the wrong kind of people. (Régis Debray wrote a cheeky book on this subject, whose title translates as ‘On the good use of catastrophes’.) Bakhtin suggests that, if people aim to ward themselves against the instrumentalisation of the terror of ‘great reality’, they need to find a way of coming to terms with it and to ‘humanise’ the potentially scary relations. For Bakhtin, the best way of negotiating ‘great reality’ is through our body: to realise its open-ness to the world. This strategy, however, is not only about the self, about one’s own protection: it is about being a part of humanity as a whole, about being willing to see the bigger picture against ‘small’ interests, and about being willing to sacrifice one’s stability and (physical) integrity for the greater humanity.

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

Simone Weil follows a very similar goal. She, too, tries to persuade us to ‘identify ourselves with the universe itself’. And, like Bakthin, she argues against the pursuit of a ‘small reality’ where we try to protect ourselves against arbitrary events. As she writes: ‘we must prefer hell to an imaginary paradise’ (returning to the ‘Matrix’ theme of the red and blue pill from the previous post…). For Weil, to feel the universe, the world, is important in at least two ways. The first resembles Bakhtin’s focus on protection: identifying with the universe has nothing to do with turning people into passive matter, but, on the contrary, with warding ourselves against being ‘reduced to matter’. The one thing we do not wish to become by what happens to us, according to Weil, is ‘mere matter’ – to not be interested in actively shaping one’s life, to be interested only in ‘means’ such as money or power. Weil thinks a lot in terms of good and evil, and, to identify with the universe is a form of protection from evil. Evil, in her view, can destroy only ‘tangible’ things. In order to maintain the ‘good’, she proposes to focus on intangible things, and to tie the ones we want to protect, such as our most precious thoughts, to the ‘perpetual exchange of matter’, and particularly to two things, which she believes cannot be taken away from any living human being: respiration and the perception of space. The second way, in which an identification with the universe is important, has to do with others: to understand others not as parts of the same universe but as another conception of the universe (or prisons surrounded by universes, but that’s another story), be they other people or nation states. If we see others as such, it makes it difficult to wish to become the ‘master’ of the one universe, to become involved in power struggles. But this vision is also about ethical relating: how do we interact with another conception of the universe? Could it be understood as the same, but different world? Would we take responsibility for destroying such a world? Wouldn’t we destroy ourselves – wholly?

Kusama’s dotted room under UV light

All of these positions were with me when I entered Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective. The exhibition started with a room of her early paintings, which already seemed to address ‘the dissolution of her own image and individuality in the infinity of a cosmic landscape’. We learn that Kusama’s work emanates from a child hood experience of ‘losing’ her body at the family’s kitchen table, when she felt her body and the whole room being invaded and ‘obliterated’ by the red flower pattern of the dinner table cloth. Having lost the boundaries with her environment in this way, Kusama proceeds to experiment with the limits of bodily boundaries. Her ‘Infinity Nets’, for instance, a series of paintings showing a seemingly infinite number or small loops, could be seen as a means to explore the human/machine boundary. Kusama herself describes these paintings as being ‘without beginning, end, or centre’. Sometimes stretching over several walls, these paintings have often been described as ‘inhuman’, in the sense that no one human could have produced them. Apparently, Kusama sometimes painted several days on end, at least once ending up in hospital from the consequences of her caffeine-fuelled sleeplessness (or paint-smell overdose?). At the same time, these paintings, this overabundance of loops or dots, can be experienced as very child-like. Yet child-like does not necessarily entail a ‘humanising’ of experience, at least not for adults. As Lynn Zelevansky points out, comparing Kusama’s work to that of Yoshitomo Nara, children can be perceived as living partly in another world, too. Like the Kusama-as-machine, they are ‘boundary creatures’. On the other hand, through combining the playful shapes with machine-like repetition, Kusama also seems to ask how we should envision infinity: as a pleasant ‘surpassing’ of time (to use Weil’s words) or as endless sterility?

Kusama and her penis-covered furniture

Either way, the subject of infinity addresses the limits of human experience. In his essay ‘dot, dot, dot.’, psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman draws attention to two further boundaries in the work of Kusama: those of gender and the organic/inorganic. Pointing to the artist’s placement of dots, he proposes that not only do they cover men, women and objects equally, but also appear to multiply without touching. As he phrases it: ‘the dots don’t fuck’ – or don’t need to. Similarly, Kusama appears to contest the distinction between living and non-living by making inanimate objects sprout a ‘forest of penises’. Comparing her tactic with the case of Freud’s ‘little Hans’, who distinguishes between the living and non-living by means of their capacity for ‘making wee-wee’, Wajcman half-jokingly concludes that Kusama truly fails to make that cut. For him, she also addresses this particular cut when she ‘vaporises’ the body in works such as ‘Narcissus Garden’, a field of 1500 chromed plastic orbs, each reflecting the body of the person standing amongst them. More so, Kusama’s artworks seem to ask how the spectators view themselves not only within the artwork, but in relation to their environment: do they feel what it is like to be ‘a dot in the universe’ – vaporised into a infinite number of (meaningless?) particles or isolated planets, do they feel paranoid about being looked at from hundreds of mirrors – or do they bask in the feeling of being infinitely reflected and looked at? Here, Hegel’s term ‘bad infinity’ (used by Žižek) comes to mind as a perfect description, though not in the original meaning.


Yayoi Kusama: Narcissus Garden

Different responses to infinity seem increasingly enabled in Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water Infinity Room. When stepping into this installation – comprised of a dark mirrored room, black floor covered in water, with a passageway in between, and a seemingly infinite number of little coloured lightbulbs – one really gets a sense of what it means to be a ‘dot in the universe’. I experienced a loss of gravity, as if I was hovering in and staring straight into the universe, like a suitless (boundary-less?) astronaut dumped out of a space vessel. How to make sense of such a human/universe encounter? And why might Kusama think it is important to have such experiences? Wajcman proposes that Kusama’s work is as much about others as it is about herself: that her works seek to create spaces where all of humanity could (or should?) live, to create spaces where, according to the artist herself, she is able to save people from their ‘sad, outcast’ existences. Wajcman suggests that by outcasts, Kusama thinks less of the mentally ill, homosexuals or other ‘social outcasts’ who are explicitly addressed or participate in her works, but a ‘humanity reduced to dots, to counters, to non-being’. As he concludes, for him, Kusama invents the world we are missing/the world we need.


Yayoi Kusama ‘Fireflies on the Water’ Infinity Room

Here, an interesting link ties ‘saving oneself’ with ‘saving humanity’ (self/other boundary): how does my view of myself in relation to my environment impact on greater society? This is the place, where, for me, Žižek comes in and his critique of mass individualism, particularly the individual’s excessive focus on the body. It relates to the tension between two opposite poles that, for me, is expressed in Kusama’s work. As Wajcman put it: is Kusama’s work the ultimate self-obsession – to see oneself at the centre of, and infinitely reflected in, the universe – or is it the ultimate selflessness – about becoming (part of) the universe by recognising the ‘pointlessness’ of a focus only on oneself? This opposition is also expressed by Simone Weil and Slavoj Zizek. To use Weil’s words:

‘Two tendencies with opposite extremes: to destroy the self for the sake of the universe, or to destroy the universe for the sake of the self. He who has not been able to become nothing runs the risk of reaching a moment when everything other than himself ceases to exist.’

What if, as Zizek asks, being ‘really alive’ entails addressing something bigger than our own ‘good time’? What if it means addressing the wider dimensions of life and of the world, and both being humbled by it and wishing to take up a greater cause?

Image source: Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s work has been accused of being narcissistic rather than being about teaching others how to be a mere dot amongst others, particularly, because of its spectacular and at times pornographic nature. Not only do critics take into account the appearance of her work, but also Kusama’s knack for drawing media attention. Having been exposed to all the different aspects of her work (apart from her writing, which I have just started to delve into), I cannot but view it as an offer of choice – it is up to you how you want to take on her work. You can contemplate the universe or your own reflection in her work – or do both at the same time: to become lost in the dots while filming yourself in the process of it. Like most people, I left the exhibition in a state of extreme happiness. Unlike to be expected from photos of Kusama’s work, I did not feel that this was because of ‘intoxication’ from the bright colours and wacky shapes, but from having had the chance to experiment with being a dot in the universe.


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