Untitled 1966 / Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Much as Kusama’s art had spread beyond the confines of the canvas, so, too, her ongoing project had spread beyond art journals to the mainstream press. Like Andy Warhol, who also shared a fascination with the mass media and an appreciation for the possibilities it presented, Kusama’s engagement with popular media was frowned upon by an art world which, ‘after the advent of Pop Art, was particularly sensitive to the encroachment of mass culture into the realm of high art’.10 Around this time, criticism arose of what has been described as Kusama’s ‘excessive self-promotion' and ‘lust for publicity’. Her sustained complicity with the popular media was, and continues to be, however, an elaborate parody; elusive contradiction lies at the heart of her project, which also challenges many assumptions about art practice and creativity.11 The intelligence informing Kusama's art stems from an ability to embrace and subsume such dualities:

. . . since her work strives to be nothing less than all-encompassing, no contradiction exists for her between aesthetic engagement and publicity, or psychic disorder and emotional control, and there is no consistently discernible boundary between her self and her art.12

Happily accepting the moniker ‘Dotty’ from the tabloids, more recently, Kusama has donned peaked witch’s hats and sorcerer’s robes for performances, an ironic nod, perhaps, both to her age and to the mental illness she continues to live with.13


The body in art is the site where identity, as defined by gender, race and sexuality, is most often situated, as well as performed and challenged. For Kusama, the body has often been used as a literal surface for the inscription of a visual language of identification, both real and projected, taken from stereotypes and personae the artist inhabits, often literally, with costumes and wigs a constant in her visual repertoire. Notions of identity and self are acted out in public or brought to light through the use of props and costumes in order to enact a masquerade of identity. By staging and adopting identity through the use of signs and signifiers, such as clothes, make-up and fake physical attributes, codes of gender and race are explored. Kusama was photographed reclining on her Accumulation No. 2 sculpture in front of one of her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings in 1966. She collaged this photograph above a strip of glued-on macaroni, continuing the textured, obsessional decorative patterns visible in the photograph. Presenting herself as both the artist–subject and the explicit body–object of desire, Kusama was criticised for being an exhibitionist by critics, most notably JF Rodenbeck who wrote:

Priestess of Nudity, Psychotic Artist, the Polka-Dot Girl, Obsessional Artist, publicity hound: in the 1960s Yayoi Kusama was the target of a number of epithets, some of them self-inflicted, all of them part of an exhibitionist’s notoriety.14

In other self-portrait photographs produced around 1960, the artist is on view, enacting herself as pin-up staring unapologetically into the lens of the camera capturing the scenario and meeting the gaze of the viewer head-on. She poses, reclining comfortably atop a vertiginous landscape of phallic knobs ('woman-as-phallus meets phallus-as-sign-of-male-privilege'15). She is naked, wearing heavy make-up (in keeping with the fashion of 1960s New York), sporting high heels, with long black hair and polka dots adorning her bare flesh. As Kris Kuramitsu has suggested, this image:

. . . is only one of many that highlight [Kusama’s] naked, Asian female body. These photographs, and the persona that cultivate/was cultivated by them, is what engenders the usual terse assessment [in art discourse] of Kusama as ‘problematic’.16

Kusama plays on what Kuramitsu describes as her ‘doubled otherness’ in relation to American culture: she is both sexually and racially at odds with the normative conception at that time — of the artist as Euro–American and male. The artist also substitutes performance for presence in a stereotypical representation of femininity that is a piece of theatre, a masquerade, and a ‘masquerade’ which, as feminist film theorist Mary Anne Doane has pointed out, ‘in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance’.17

Photo-collages and photographs of the artist cavorting under, on and around her two-and three-dimensional works were intended for publicity and as works in themselves — as stop-action performances where artist and art work are indistinguishable. They are also self-portraits. One series in particular, dated 1964, shows Kusama wearing a crocheted blouse and fishnet stockings in imitation of one of her own works; she stands near a similarly posed pasta-covered mannequin surrounded by 'Accumulation Furniture' and ‘Infinity Net’ paintings. In perhaps her best known photograph, Kusama is naked, save for a spray of stick-on polka dots and a pair of high heels, draping herself provocatively across Accumulation No. 2 1966, a couch bristling with erect phalli.18 Such images are also part of a publicity package, artist statements and press releases accompanying Kusama's projects, beginning with the earliest ‘Infinity Net’ paintings and continuing to the present day. In this way, she blurs the line between artist and art work, between stop-action performance, self-portrait and press image. A vast archive of video and film, still photographs, newspaper clippings and press releases all document this ongoing performance encompassing Kusama’s voluminous oeuvre, as well as the artist’s own life.19