Overcoming mental illness through art

Throughout history, many artists have lived with some form of mental illness, from depression, to bipolar and schizophrenia. This has often been reflected in their art, as an outward visualisation of the pain they may have felt inside.

The difference for artists of the past and modern artists today is that mental illness wasn’t really something widely acknowledged or understood before the 21st century. In recent years, and particularly following the last 18 months of social and economic disruption, the discussion of mental health in society is a familiar one. One of the most celebrated artists today, Yayoi Kusama, is someone that has formulated her style and success from her mental illness, creating work that engulfs audiences, imploring them to experience and understand her difficult reality.

Born in Japan in 1929, she was subjugated by her family’s/society’s expectations of her to marry well and become a mother and housewife when she grew up. Even as a child, Kusama knew that she wanted something different in life and was determined to make it happen. The oppression from society’s treatment of women and female artists is something Kusama continued to battle with, on top of living through other traumatic events like WW2. Adopting the counterculture life in post-war New York as a female, Japanese avant-garde artist creating controversial art wasn’t easy, but Kusama persevered. She later admitted herself to a mental institution in Japan in 1977, where she has lived since, while still creating art daily in her studio across the road.

“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieved my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”

Today, Kusama’s artwork and influence is everywhere. Most people will recognise her infamous style of repetitive dots and bold vibrant colours, which she has applied to all sorts of worldwide projects over the years, from city takeovers of polka dot trees in the early 2000s, to a collaborative collection with Louis Vuitton in 2012. Kusama experienced hallucinations since she was a child, seeing repetitive dots and flowers everywhere around her. She has spoken about how much this would scare her, however instead of retreating into that fear, she found a therapeutic way to “manage the madness” through her artwork.

The obsessive and repetitive nature of Kusama’s work is a reflection of those hallucinations she sees. She draws the audience into her mind to experience the world the way she sees it — arguably more successfully than most — as the viewer isn’t simply observing but is brought in to become part of her version of reality. From her performance art orgies in the 60s that were often orchestrated in her mirrored infinity rooms, and carrying on to today’s immersive installations that people across the world are experiencing, self-obliteration is the reoccurring theme.

“The feelings behind my works are subconscious and psychosomatic. My work is based on developing my psychological problems into art.”

Kusama talks of putting her “desire for peace, praise for the unpredictable and the astonishing mystery of the universe” into her work, all of which is clear to see. There’s a juxtaposition of the jarring frenzy of methodical repetition, but a simultaneous sense of calm, akin to Kusama’s experience of her mental illness and the therapeutic practice she has built for herself. With the prevalence of conversations on the importance of increasing awareness of neurodiversity in wider society and business today, it’s both relevant and important for audiences to embrace Kusama’s art and better understand what living with a mental illness can feel like.

Now at 92 years old, with multiple exhibitions around the world, and still continuing to create art everyday, Kusama is an incredibly inspiring woman. She has shown such resilience and strength throughout her life, as well as her continuous dedication to her values, aspirations and love of art.

Current exhibitions:

Alternatively, you can experience a virtual walkthrough of Kusama’s recent exhibition “A Retrospective: A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe” at Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany.

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