Kusama exhibit prompts critique of mental health culture

Yayoi Kusama is an acclaimed contemporary Japanese painter and sculptor known for her repetitive imagery and polka-dotted installations. Kusama uses art as a coping mechanism for her anxiety, obsessive compulsions and hallucinations. Courtesy of XinRui Ong

If you turn to any side of Yayoi Kusama’s Shanghai exhibit “All About Love Speaks Forever,” you’ll see your reflection repeated infinitely in the form of a curved line glancing back at you. The flickering lights change colors rapidly, blurring your sense of space. Stay in the room long enough, and you’ll forget which reflection is the real you.

“All About Love Speaks Forever” transports the viewer to a world of wild colors and larger-than-life sculptures of pumpkin flowers. Kusama, a Japanese artist known for her polka dot themes, allows her audience to step into her mind through the immersive mirrored walls and orange and black dot-filled environments that compose her exhibit. These repetitive images convey the self-obliteration she experiences from her mental illness, specifically her hallucinations.

While Kusama uses art as a coping mechanism, it is important to note that her creativity is not a direct result of her mental illness. It is often falsely parsed out as a causal relationship—Kusama is only able to create art because she is mentally ill. While it is true that Kusama’s obsessive compulsions and hallucinations are reflected in her artwork, it’s the courage and vision it takes to narrate these sensations through art that makes her noteworthy. She once wrote, “I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art” (New York Magazine, “The Art of the Flame-Out,” 07.06.2012). Kusama relies on art as therapy, or “art medicine,” as she calls it. Her powerful, visionary conveyance of these feelings is what truly deserves recognition, and not her mental illnesses.

I first acknowledged the flawed public perception of Kasuma’s art during a conversation with my mother. She wondered aloud to me: How did Kasuma stare motionlessly at pumpkins growing? How did she find emotional connections with meaningless, repetitive dots? I answered, without thought, “I guess because she’s crazy.” Almost immediately, I wanted to swallow my words. Without meaning to, almost unconsciously, I credited the work to the illness of the creator rather than her artistry.

Kusama is declared a genius in the art world because of her bizarre manifestations of powerful and unsettling emotions. The popularity of Kusama’s work has the potential to glorify her illness, which would conceal the truly detrimental consequences of mental distress.

Before coming to Vassar, I neither received mental health education in my school curriculum, nor did my parents discuss it with me. Words such as “retarded” were used in half-hearted mockery, completely ignoring the reality of these conditions. The media’s portrayals of mental illnesses—in images of laughing serial killers, or people catatonically gawking at blank walls—reinforce these bigoted views. 

I’ve noticed mental distress is often perceived to be much more malicious than it actually is. For example, I’ve heard people gossip about a visit to a counselor’s office as if it is some unspeakable tragedy. I only realized that anxiety and panic disorders are common occurrences after coming to Vassar, where people freely share their emotions while emphasizing the importance of self-care. If it wasn’t for the mental health education I received at Vassar, I would still be very confused about how to care for my own mental health or how to help others around me—and I would definitely be embarrassed to admit my vulnerabilities and seek help. 

This change in my viewpoint demonstrates how crucial education is. Many other sensitive topics, such as sexual health and freedom of expression, are not yet embraced as a fundamental component of education in many parts of the world, including where I grew up. I do see progress in how these issues are approached—but at home, while I eagerly downloaded an app that provided a more accessible means to mental support, I noticed that Durex advertisements were being taken down in the halls of a subway station. But while some oppose our changing culture, it is nonetheless exciting for me to see mental health discussions happening in public spaces such as in Kusama’s art exhibit—conversations such as these go a long way in destigmatizing taboo topics.

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