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William Blake and Yayoi Kusama: Endless Myth

The Structure of Mythological Revolutions

When I walked into the screening of the movie “Kusama – Infinity,” a handful of people were already there, gathered on the green couches of FloMo, eyes glued to the screen. They were all familiar faces, except for the one woman in the corner, about my mom’s age—wearing casual khakis, and a serious expression as she watched the opening credits. Her name is Heather Lenz, and the film is the culmination of her 17 year documentary enterprise, focusing on the life and works of Japanese artist (and veritable badass), Yayoi Kusama. I had never heard of her, but as the movie continued, I became increasingly enraptured.

It is hard to pinpoint a single work that embodies Kusama, but the movie is aptly titled for a recurring theme in her work. One of her most recently acclaimed pieces, Endless Love, expresses this theme most explicitly: It is a retrospective that displays her “Infinity Boxes,” in which spectators enter a room full of mirrors. In the essay “Doors of Perception,” Mika Yoshitake describes it as “Rooms … meant to be disorienting, with thousands of versions of yourself fragmented and repeated into an illusion of infinite space. There is certainly this idea of losing oneself in the infinite expanse of the universe.” The title of the essay references William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. / For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Blake is referring to something he calls Poetic Genius, or “inner vision.” The phrase might now evoke a stereotypically self-indulgent (not to mention vaguely unwashed) image of an “Artist Figure.”  But for these two, this “inner” vision was at some level, literal. As a child, for instance, Kusama was overwhelmed by a vision of flowers, which spread from her mind into the wallpaper, spilling onto the staircase in her home. She became, “obliterated by flowers,” just as Blake often suggest that the spirits intermingling in the margins of his poems are real, if we break through the “cave of the senses.”

The essay “Doors of Perception” does not probe further the connection between Blake and Kusama, other than the titular suggestion of the “psychedelic” or hallucinatory element in these authors’ works. Any other exploration of the relationship has been relegated to the US National Library of Medicine, in which the single essay, “Hallucinations in Art,” discusses Blake and Kusama from a medical, not hermeneutic perspective (Kusama, for instance, was diagnosed with OCD). And while pathologizing their mental states might be helpful to diagnosticians, I think it prevents us from seeing these two as artists, or (might I suggest) visionaries, with a web of elusive, powerful, and surprisingly interconnected existential concerns that extend beyond a diagnosis.

You might know Blake without knowing—his most famous quote (which makes its way around the Tumblr-sphere) is appropriately popular, for it conveys a conviction in his own work: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.”

For Blake, this creation took the form of an elaborate mythological system, involving (among many others) Orc and Urizen, godlike figures, who don’t come directly from any other mythological or religious system. Orc, the force of creative energy, is always in danger of transforming into Urizen, the imposer of law, the embodiment of tradition and Reason. Thus, Creation is always in danger of ossification, as the dynamic nature of making walks the treacherous line between the dynamic, inspired mind (what Blake would call “poetic genius”) and the rigidity of an external world—the world of systems, of institutions. In order to counterbalance this tendency toward systemization, Blake creates a web of characters ever-elusive and ever-transmorphing into one another. This change makes him a difficult subject to, say, write an analytical paper about, and an alluring prospect to the literary theorist.

Kusama is similarly concerned with creation and destruction, spirituality and the soul. However, rather than portray these values in Urizenic or Orc-like characters, her mythology emerges in the nets and dots and webs that have come to permeate her work. They recur in different forms, over time and space.

These webs both “entrap and fascinate” Kusama; she is at once captive to them and responsible for giving them form. And like Orc, there is always the possibility that without expression, they will overwhelm her from the outside in. And so she constantly paints, sculpts, thinks, writes; just as in Blake’s worlds, she she lives in a cycle of “destruction and creation.”

Like any mythology, the webs have an origin story, captured in Lenz’s documentary.

During her flight from Japan to America as a young woman, Kusama looked down and saw “ever-expanding nets on the surface of the ocean.” Like the flowers on the walls of her childhood home, these patterns became fodder for artistic production, and an inchoate version of what would become a famous series of web-like prints.

The plane marks a turning point for Kusama both artistically and culturally; America held promise—it was the land of art, of freedom from the fetters of parental disapproval, the land of Georgia O’Keefe. And yet it came with its own constraints: she was a woman and a foreigner in a world dominated by white men.

The documentary follows Kusama as she diligently “Protested against the close-minded system of art.” And in a way, she was forced to—for it was either protest or go unnoticed. Protesting for her meant persistent appeals to gallery owners and fellow artists; she was known for a “lust for publicity”—the only way to get her work displayed. Her protest was also aesthetic, for she was the first of any artist to work with soft sculpture, with repeated images, and the previously mentioned Infinity Room. These were aesthetically and philosophically original, for they forced the audience into an actively participatory role—you were no longer viewing the art, but necessarily experiencing it (by way of connection, this sort of readerly engagement is also a dominant feature in Blake’s work, often induced by his hard-to-pin-down webs of characters, wily narratives, and not-clearly-related illuminated drawings).

Despite their novelty Kusama’s work generally met with tepid critical reception. And yet, as the documentary slowly and heartbreakingly unfolds, each of these new forms were adopted (whether intentionally or not) in following months by figures like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, white men, whose repeated, eternally recurring imagery and soft sculpture met with international critical acclaim. The disparity in recognition drove Kusama into a depressive state.

In his time, Blake was similarly overlooked, perhaps more for the fact that he published only handful of his works. Strangely, however, the height of his popularity came in the 1960’s (see: Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, the Doors), just at the time Kusama was at her most prolific, and perhaps most undervalued. And yet his literary themes seem to anticipate her many of the systems of oppression that constrained Kusama.

Originally from London, Blake was also deeply concerned in the formation America, the land of revolution. Written in 1793 (136 years before Kusama’s birth), “America: A Prophecy” is a Blake’s vision of the American Revolution, sparked by the revolutionary energy of Orc. And while he endorses the resistance of a tyrannical oppressor (King George, in this case), his poem is not all that hopeful for the fate of the new country; he disapproved of the slavery on which America was founded, as well as the lack of sexual revolution; worried that this rebellious spirit would fade into yet another tyrannical system.

Kusama was also a visionary in a political sense. She headed many anti-war “happenings,” protests celebrating the human form, even conducting gay marriages in the U.S. some 40 years before it was legalized. These movements gained her publicity and notoriety, particularly in her hometown of Matsumoto, where she was vilified for her radical beliefs, and especially the nude protests she organized, pictures of which her family purchased in order to hide and destroy.

There is an uncanny resemblance between this image and Blake’s depiction of a fiery, revolutionary in his “For Children.” Both figures extend their arms outward in an ecstatic, violently self-liberating motion. And in a way, it makes sense: Kusama embodies the visionary, the artistic energy necessary for revolution, at the same time as she faces the social and political oppression that Blake anticipated would plague America, over 100 years earlier.

The final scenes of the documentary trace Kusama’s recent focus on collage. Many of these, like The Soul Going Back to its Home, are paired with poems, in which she contemplates a sort of Infinite Love, an eternal present, webs connectivity between, and—like with the Infinity Mirrors —the self and other. In one installation, a video shows her reading a poem: “Amidst the agony of flowers the present never ends … I become a stone, not in time eternal but in the present that transpires.” These multifaceted art pieces bring to mind the quote from the book about William Blake: “The important thing to remember is that [Blake] was always writing about the human soul.” The soul comes to represent something of that inner vision, that personal creative spark encapsulated by the two artists’ creations, as well as a shared sense of spirituality—embracing a sort of internal God, what one Blake scholar calls “the Holiness of all Life, The Brotherhood of Man”, and what Kusama might call “My Eternal Soul” or “Infinite Love.”

Lenz ends Kusama’s story with in a heroic gesture: Not only does she gain worldwide acclaim (check out her instagram!), but she is also welcomed back to the hometown that alienated her for her radical views.

And yet, like Blake’s “America,” the the documentary leaves us on a less optimistic note; despite Kusama’s success, us only 3-5% of artists in galleries today are women. In the discussion afterward Heather Lenz mentioned the challenges facing female artists, artists of color, suggesting that filmmakers face the most gender inequality: “Can you name more than one or two female directors?” She asked the room. No one responded.

Even so, there was something redemptively Kusama-esque about Lenz’s perspective and work, which screened at Sundance this year, and which has also gained critical acclaim.

Just as Blake’s text has “The force of a new universe behind it,” Kusama insists that “we all live in our own worlds.” Kusama was relentlessly committed to her own, despite the inordinate opposition she faced. While she lacks the bright wigs and flashy polka-dot gear, Heather Lenz similarly continues her work because she has something she needs to say. She, like Kusama, reminds us of what Blake posited 200 years ago: We create because we inhabits worlds particular to us, and—whether they are Urizen or Birds of the Soul, biopics or analytical essays—if we do not make them, no one else will.

Contact Emma Heath at ebheath ‘at’ stanford.edu. This is Emma Heath’s final article with The Daily (for the time being).

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Hannah Knowles

Hannah Knowles

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

Emma Heath

Emma Heath

Emma Heath — when not interrupting herself unnecessarily — is an English major. Her long term goals include finding the perfect banana-peanut butter ratio and continuing to read books with pretty words.