The Art of Anxious Environments
Yayoi Kusama’s series of paintings, Fruits, contain the most pleasantly anxiety-inducing table dressings I have ever seen. They feature pumpkins, mushrooms, zucchinis, and cherries, covered in dots, fruits so kinetic they can’t quite bring themselves to sit down in their bowls. Even the tables, gridded in sharply contrasting colors, contribute to the unsettling vista.
Using a well-developed visual language, in this piece Kusama brings me into a kitchen where there is no homey comfort. Instead, each object is riddled with anxious energy. Encountering environments like this through Kusama’s art made me realize that my own discomfort was something I could address in a new way. She has helped me understand how art can construct an environment that puts us at ease, opening us to the way others experience their own internal worlds.
Art can construct an environment that puts us at ease, opening us to the way others experience their own internal worlds.
There is a strong argument that I was socially anxious from the very beginning. My mom joked that, even after 48 hours of labor, I still clung to the safety of her interior with all I had. In a way I am proud of my young self for never wavering from that sentiment. The world terrified me. I was painfully shy, hiding behind my mother as a young girl and later behind a self-constructed silence.
I didn’t recognize that this terror was a real illness until my first year of university. Campus contained a sea of individuals who seemingly did not struggle to value themselves, whose words came easily, whose connections with each other were fluid. In that place, I grew confused, sad, and prone to a bitterness that destroyed most of the tenuous connections I managed to make. I attempted traditional therapy but felt judged more than helped. All I gained from the experience were two quantifiers for what I was feeling—depression and social anxiety disorder.
Then I found Yayoi Kusama, an 88-year-old Japanese artist and the subject of a current retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
In Kusama, I encountered a woman who has dealt with depression, nervous disorders, hallucinations, and has spent most of her life willingly inside a mental institution. Kusama may live half a world away from me, but I feel very close to the challenges she faces from mental illness.
Kusama taught me a new and life-changing option: you can build an environment around yourself.
Kusama offers a unique insight into art and psyche, translating mental experience directly through different media, without attempting to make personal experience anything other than personal. Her work accepts that some will think she is crazy while others will relate. Through art, Kusama takes an extreme disadvantage and connects to millions, allowing us to “peep” into infinite interior spaces.
Inspired by Kusama, shortly after graduating college, I began to draw and paint. Soon I realized I was learning a language I lacked before. The images I created spoke through my wall of silence.
Through art, I built new walls, and sheathed myself in the things I felt. Within the protective environment of my desk, I drew women full of holes, flowers growing protective insect legs, painted figures elongated and made into new creatures. These creatures can speak in ways I never could, opening viewers to elements that may not be present within their own microenvironment.
For instance, in Cultivation, I express one of my most prevalent fears of being overtaken by a social situation, swallowed up by beings that at first seemed beautiful. In Off You, I am comforted by the idea of being sheathed from the elements, but leave the figures unaware of the tenuous foundation that lies outside their cocoon. Each work provides a representation of my micro-world, while challenging viewers to mentally pair elements that may not peacefully coexist in their own worlds.
Kusama’s Infinity and Obliteration Room installations take the idea of microenvironments to its natural end—constructing actual rooms, intricately detailed, providing the viewer with an opportunity to walk within her obsessions. In Obliteration, especially, we are placed directly into her self-described ‘dot obsession.’ Each visitor is given a sheet full of multicolored dot stickers, and a pure white room is soon covered with psychedelic chicken pox, destroying the pristine surfaces in the name of viewers’ understanding the artist’s experience.
From each personal construction, no matter the size, we bridge to other worlds. Doing so, we annex each other.
I have learned that when you begin to depict your experience of the environment, it feels too precious to share. Then you realize it could be lost forever if you don’t.
Life is uncomfortable for both of us, but Kusama gave me license to try to make that discomfort into something beautiful.
My work may not connect to you. You may not connect to Kusama’s work. That’s alright. We search for the appropriate blocks to construct personal microenvironments that fit within larger environments beyond our control. Visual art may not even be your construction material—maybe it is literature, or dance, or cooking, or music. You can construct your environment from more than one of these. The tools Kusama’s art has given me are my most utilized because they drive me to reach out to others in the same way she has to me.
Life is uncomfortable for both of us, but Kusama gave me license to try to make that discomfort into something beautiful. The important thing is that we keep challenging ourselves to renovate, so that our natural walls can withstand the construction of new passageways.
Nisse Lovendahl is an illustrator living in Brooklyn, NY. She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2004-2008, and moved to New York in 2013, where she now lives with her husband and lucky black cat, Neko. Website.
Brave and beautiful piece! Thanks, Nisse.