Yayoi Kusama, 2007
Yayoi Kusama, 2007 / Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Kusama continues to perform questions directly — repeatedly asking ‘Am I an object?’, ‘Am I a subject?’. Pictured in her installation Infinity Mirror Room 1965, wearing a red leotard, she lies prone in a mirrored room reflecting an infinite field of polka-dotted protuberances. In her pose and dress, she is removed from us as viewers — this act of near camouflage is a move towards the ‘self-obliteration’ the artist craves. Yet, she still can’t seem to make up her mind whether she wants to proclaim herself as ‘celebrity pin-up (object of our desires) or artist (master of intentionality)’.20 This distinction is unimportant, however, as in either version of her ‘performance’ she is merely comprehending the ‘rhetoric of the pose’ and its associated resonances. These pictures of Kusama then, ‘are deeply embedded in the discursive structure of ideas informing her work that is her “author-function”’.21


Kusama’s legacy not only affected her own generation, but continues to resonate today. Her conviction that the body is a vehicle for artistic expression provided a precedent for the obsessive, repetitive, body-oriented sculpture of artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, and prefigured the work of, amongst others, Robert Gober, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith. Her struggles with cultural identity, sexuality, gender and race resonate with works by Yasumasa Morimura, Matthew Barney and Janine Antoni.22 Hence, Kusama’s renewed importance has much to do with contemporary artists whose explorations echo her own — examining the connections between organic and mechanical, personal and formal, physical and intellectual.

Interestingly — and as part of a broader and largely uninterrogated development on the contemporary art scene — a younger generation of artists, whether consciously or not, have been inspired by Kusama’s pioneering approach. Performative forms of art are currently enjoying a resurgence, and, while the range of influences is as diverse as the approaches employed, like Kusama, this new generation is making work that employ a direct gaze and which engage in a forthright engagement with the viewer. Alongside the literal positing of entanglements involving subject/author/viewer, this group of younger, experimental — and frequently female artists — is producing works that reference performative art practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Of particular interest are those that variously redeploy the intense focus on the body as subject and object, the theatricality of performance, the physicality of body art, and the mirroring of self-portraiture, where unconscious selves are actively projected externally.

For this generation, experience, gesture, action and the body are inexorably tied to concepts involving production. By repositioning the artist repeatedly, and often literally, in the frame or in a live situation, the viewer is forced into a ‘series of negations that create a turbulent understanding of human persona and human vulnerability’.23 Like Kusama, these artists successfully bridge ‘multiple points of interruption, moving through media platforms, spaces and the centre of our vision with occasional sassy impudence’.24 And, like Kusama, who has always stridently denied any connection with feminism, these contemporary artists are often uncomfortable with the term, yet, at the same time, reference strategies associated with feminism’s history in art, particularly an embrace of new media technologies and tropes associated with the performative.

Kusama may not have actively sought to show the constructed nature of femininity in her art, yet, whether consciously or not, her works dismantle norms and expectations that control and disrupt accepted signifiers of identity. While Kusama moved to distance herself from such interpretations, the shifting concerns and debates in art about the body, gender and sexuality continue to have currency in the contested landscape of art theory and production. The period since the 1960s coincides with an explosion of feminist theory, the subsequent widening of debate to include questions of difference — of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity — and an awareness of the impossibility of speaking for a collectivity beyond the realm of interpersonal experience.

Just as Yayoi Kusama seemed to perpetuate the gestures of objectification, this new generation often performs for the camera, and with unprecedented control as director, author, performer and even distributor. The artist is the image, and spans production and representation in a way that enables them to reveal themselves without flinching, so to speak. By neatly sidestepping disavowal, repression or the taken-for-granted, these artists are authors of their own representation: their collective sidelong glance, quotation, nod, random encounter or riff on the multi-layered histories of the body and the performative in art history gives presence to the past and positions the terrain for new parallels.25 It is as John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing: ‘The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past’.26

Bree Richards is Assistant Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art.


  1. The term ‘performativity’ was first developed by JL Austin and has since been revised by theorists from Jacques Derrida to Judith Butler, in order to break open the process of meaning production with respect to temporal/narrative arts such as film or theatre, or in relation to the experience of identity and subjectivity in the postmodern world.
  2. Laura Hoptman, ‘Yayoi Kusama: A reckoning’, in Yayoi Kusama, Phaidon Press, London, 2000, p.34.
  3. Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones (eds), The Artist’s Body: Themes and Motives, Phaidon Press, London, 2000, p.1.
  4. Warr and Jones, p.1
  5. Warr and Jones, p.70.
  6. Warr and Jones, p.27.
  7. Ursula Panhans-Bühler, ‘Between heaven and earth: This languid weight of life’, Parkett, no.59, 2000, p.88.
  8. Cited in Warr and Jones, p.82.
  9. Jud Yalkut, cited in Hoptman, p.68.
  10. Hoptman, p.59.
  11. Lynn Zelevansky, ‘Driving image: Yayoi Kusama in New York’, in Thomas Frick (ed.), Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958–1968, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Japan Foundation, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; c.1998, p.11.
  12. Zelevansky, p.11–12.
  13. Hoptman, p.55.
  1. Cited in Warr and Jones, p.134.
  2. Amelia Jones, ‘“Presence” in absentia: Experiencing performance as documentation’, Art Journal, vol.56, no.4, winter 1997, p.14.
  3. Cited in Jones, 1997, p.14.
  4. Cited in Zelevansky, p.23.
  5. Hoptman, p.54.
  6. Hoptman, p.59.
  7. Jones, 1997, p.15.
  8. Jones, p.15.
  9. Zelevansky, p.30.
  10. Alexie Glass, ‘Extimacy: A new generation of feminism’, Art and Australia, vol.47, no.1, spring 2009, p.136.
  11. Glass, p.136.
  12. Glass, p.139.
  13. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1972, p.11.