“You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies”

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I interviewed Yayoi Kusama in Tokyo in 1983, where she had been living (voluntarily) in a psychiatric hospital for nearly a decade, making art, but forgotten by the art world. A few years later, her star reascended, and in 2008, her painting “No. 2” broke a record (over $5 million) for a living woman artist at auction (nearly double what a piece by her former lover, Joseph Cornell, commanded the same day).

Last week when I stumbled on her 2005 installation, “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies” at the Phoenix Art Museum, it was a soul-shaking encounter. A darkened, mirrored room with tiny shifting LED lights suspended from the ceiling, the piece is like an existential baptismal font in which Kusama’s signature dots mark her signature distance-infinity-and promise to wash you away.

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You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies, Yayoi Kusama, 2005. Mixed media.

Our 1983 conversation was supposed to be about the role of dreams in art, but I soon learned hallucinations were more relevant to her vision. She told me about waking up one day and seeing nets covering everything in her room, before she became New York’s “Polka Dot Girl” promoting self obliteration through the accumulation of “black polka dots of death.”

“Fireflies” makes you feel instantly disarmed, disoriented, lonely—and exhilarated: it confronts you with a terrifying sense of freedom, the kind you might savor, anyway, before jumping off a cliff. But Kusama, who still lives in a mental hospital, knows her limits: if not for art, she has always said, she would have killed herself. And look at her now: she’s an octogenarian superstar.

Knit Pick

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

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If you gave Yayoi Kusama a crochet hook, she might mount the kind of fuzzy spectacle you’ll find on the corner of 47th St. and Lexington Avenue this week. “Covers,” a collaboration between choreographer Carrie Ahern and fabric artist Olek, is a silent performance/installation piece in which two women wrapped (or trapped?) in bolts of kooky knitwear move in slow motion in a storefront gallery itself webbed in wool. It’s as if a spider on acid had spun out of control, trading silk for yarn and catching moving mannequins in its web.

Between the buzz of fashion week in Bryant Park and the bustle of people rushing along Lexington Avenue at rush hour (the only time the women appear) the performance is a midtown island of calm, craft and counter-consumerism. Nothing here’s for sale.  Step closer and you’ll notice random crochet-covered objects—an iron, a sled and a t.v. —along with crazy little phallic sheaths (and balloons) dangling from the ceiling. While the two artists perform in a trance, a third figure, wearing a head-to-toe fitted number (half burqua, half spidey-suit) knits maniacally in the corner, stopping only to glare at random spectators. This is an only-in-New York moment:  Linger, and you’ll be glad you did. Hurry past, and admit you’ve lost your sense of urban wonder.  The Covers women are at the Lab Gallery, next to the Roger Smith Hotel, September 16, 18, 21, 23rd and 25th from 5:30-6:30.