If there is one vegetable that has featured prominently in the life and career of Yayoi Kusama, it has to be the pumpkin. Kusama grew up in wartime Japan, where the population endured severe deprivation and chronic food shortages. Yet the Kusama family wholesaling business meant that young Yayoi was never undernourished. Her house was particularly well stocked with pumpkins, which Kusama consumed in abundance in her childhood years, and she developed a lifelong affection for the vegetable.
Kusama’s first painting was of a pumpkin and she has incorporated pumpkins in her art since the 1950s. "Mirror Room (Pumpkin" (1991) – part of Kusama's exhibition at that year's Venice Biennale – saw the artist transforming a display room into a vast field of the spotty vegetable. Her trademark recurring spots are inspired by the natural markings of the Japanese pumpkin or kabocha.
“Pumpkins have been a great comfort to me since my childhood: they speak to me of the joy of living,” Kusama explains. “They are humble and amusing at the same time, and I have and always will celebrate them in my art.”
Kusama has spoken about art as an escape from her mental illness. As a child, she had hallucinations in the fields of kabocha pumpkins outside her home – they seemed to surround her with an infinite pattern of spots stretching from the ground to the sky. Her recreation of this pattern may be seen, on the one hand, as a way of taking control of it, and, on the other, as a way of sharing this sensation of the body being subsumed into the infinity of our natural surroundings.
Although she has been a prominent artist since the 1960s, Kusama has become better known in recent years, thanks in part to Tate Modern's 2012 retrospective of her work and an international tour of her work in 2014-15 that attracted over two million visitors. Today, her sculptures and installations feature in major museums and international collections. In 2017, she opened a museum dedicated to her work in Tokyo.
In her younger days, Kusama spent a decade in New York, drawing attention in 1959 with a series of large white "Infinity Net" canvases covered with pale gray spots. She then went on to stage a series of outdoor performances, including a nude protest (or "anatomical explosion") against the Vietnam War outside the New York Stock Exchange, and ticketed polka dot orgies in her studio, though she herself never removed her clothing for these performances.
She returned to Japan in the early 1970s and checked herself into the mental hospital where she still lives and works. Kusama is also a novelist and poet, and has worked in film and fashion.