I could see audience excitement for Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature from the moment I crossed through the entrance of the New York Botanical Gardens. The day was gray and threatened rain, but the vibrance of Kusama’s bright colors and rhythmic dots seemed to keep everyone in high spirits. This is due not only to Kusama’s distinctive and eye-catching forms — and Miko Yoshitake’s playful curation — but also to the artist’s well-known legacy and energetic fan base. Within the first ten minutes of my visit, I saw three different guests in polka dot dresses, grinning and posing in front of the larger-than-life sculptures they resembled. People dressed to come here. People came here to smile.
I too was primed to enjoy Kusama’s cheerful work; as I entered, a recent memory surfaced of staring up with crowds of New Yorkers as her polka dot octopus floated serenely overhead as a balloon in the Macy’s Day Parade. Despite the circus-like joy that often describes Kusama’s work, I quickly noticed that there is something else detectable in each Cosmic Nature work. Kusama, an artist who has long been open about her struggles with mental health, and who has lived voluntarily for decades in a psychiatric institute in Tokyo, knows the other side of joy: great pain. Without losing the whimsy, she takes her viewers on a journey of tremendous anxiety, befitting today’s unique uncertainties and fears.
Take first the sculpture series that introduces Cosmic Nature: Ascension of Polka Dots on Trees. At first glance, the crimson dappled with while polka dots inspire laughter. The trees are wearing elaborate frocks; they are otherworldly, magical, or celestial beings. As I walked through this candy cane forest, however, I noticed the asymmetry of the dots, which brought on a woozy and uneasy feeling. As the title suggests, the polka dots do not cover the trees, but are spreading – the red and white growth could be read as an invasive species, like a fungus, or even chicken pox infecting the trunks.
This theme emerges again in two sets of flower sculptures NYBG’s Haupt Conservatory: My Soul Blooms Forever and Hymn of Life—Tulips. These flower sculptures set in shallow pools resemble spectacular outer space plants with their scarlet, marigold, and brilliant blue, which contrast with the surrounding greenery. Fantastical as they are, however, they don’t necessarily look happy to see us. They recall the beauty and deadliness of poisonous plants, at once alluring and warning. The flowers twist, writhe, bend, and bow, as alive as any of the much stiller plants around them, but it is the type of alive that might make us nervous in this age of unprecedented fear of infection.
Even Kusama’s most explicitly positive works are, in execution, opportunities to explore inner turmoil and anxiety. Starry Pumpkin is a glittering orb of mosaic pieces set within a garden display in the Haupt Conservatory. Even as it sparkles proudly, it remains fragile and shy. Rather than displayed on its own, it pokes out, half-hidden among leaves and bushes that surround it. It calls forth the idea of precious and breakable happiness that must, as we have all been doing, physically distance itself to survive.
Similarly, Narcissus Garden lets the cheerful and the challenging collide in the form of mirrored spheres. The name surely recalls the Narcissus story from classical mythology, which casts the viewer as the central character, Narcissus, drawn to our own reflection in the orbs. Their gunmetal shine and roundness also made me think of an abandoned set of bullets, creating a post-apocalyptic scene amongst the reeds where they float. Here again is Cosmic Nature telling a simple imaginary story layered directly on top of a much more complex reality.
As I began to make my way out of Cosmic Nature, I briefly confined myself inside Dancing Pumpkin. Its name, its yellow and black spotted exterior, and a path of black-eyed Susan’s like mini dancing pumpkins leading up to it, all suggest this is a piece about happiness. While the piece gleams with an outer brightness, it contains literal inner darkness; the viewer can walk inside, which is painted a lacquered, reflective black. This choice means that once you are inside, you are alone, and looking at yourself in the dark. The “tentacles” of the pumpkin do swing out, allowing you to escape, but nevertheless, there is a sense that big black drips of nothingness are beginning to close in around you.
Kusama’s work immerses the viewer, and the artist is aware that full immersion is overwhelming. She describes her repetition of forms—from circles to flowers to pumpkins—as an obsession, and “obliteration” and “obsession” appear throughout the exhibition text. These ideas are reminiscent of our world today where natural forces beyond our control have overtaken daily life and plunged so many of us into new fixations and concerns. The takeaway from Cosmic Nature is, nevertheless, as uplifting as the buoyant polka dots and primary colors promise. While we are in a disorienting and at times troubling “funhouse,” we are also here together. We are united by the things that Kusama says hold her together and hold the world together. We are inseparable from this beauty of nature and its ability to grow and transform, and we are held in place by the cosmos, a vast, repeating universe, that encompasses us.
To visit Cosmic Nature and to learn more, click here.
© Allison Green (9/24/21) Special for FF2 Media.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Dancing Pumpkin exterior. Photo by Allison Green. All Rights Reserved.
Top Photo: Ascension of Polka Dots on Trees. Photo by Allison Green. All Rights Reserved.
Middle Photo: Dancing Pumpkin interior. Photo by Allison Green. All Rights Reserved.
Bottom Photo: Allison at the Cosmic Nature exhibit. Photo by Allison Green. All Rights Reserved.