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Pondering on Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

My first sighting of a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin was at the Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan

in 2015. The sculpture was striking, and I decided to look into its back story to understand its meaning.

Literally and metaphorically Kusama’s pumpkins grew out of her childhood spent on her parents seed farm. Their anthropomorphic shape appealed to her and when painted with dream-derived hallucinogenic polka dots they became striking objects.

Kusama has produced pumpkins in both two and three dimensions, and in many colour ways. They have populated an 'infinity room, and latterly she has deconstructed one into a giant multi-limbed creature. Clearly this motif has made a big contribution to the Kusama brand. Her pumpkins have become her most recognisable signature, and are a huge success commercially, but I struggle to find anything meaningful in them.

Much has been written about her lifelong battle with mental illness, which has been her double-edged sword. No doubt some may be intrigued by the tales of her philandering Father, spying on him in flagrante for her Mother, and the consequences for her psyche. And there’s the curiosity about a lifetime of semi-permanent hospitalisation and obsessive self-documentation through art.

But what real insights arise from consideration of her pumpkins? Having seen a Kusama pumpkin sculpture and immersed myself in one of her infinity rooms, I don’t know anything more about the nature of psychosis, or it’s implications for me.

If the pumpkin itself isn’t imbued with meaning beyond the artist’s childhood memories and art therapy, what about their polka dot treatment? Sadly there’s little to be discovered here either. While Damien Hirst attempted to add intellectual ballast with the titles he gave his spot paintings, Kusama doesn’t even try.

The dots are decoration without the mythology of the Aboriginals, the science-based insight of the Impressionists, the clever optics of Vasarely and Riley, or the humour of Lichtenstein.

The facility with which Kusama has merchandised her dots onto handbags, champagne bottles, and clothing speaks to their superficial appeal. They have no more essential meaning than the dots on a Cath Kidstone wash bag or table cloth.

When the artist is juxtaposed with her pumpkins dressed in Kusama trademark dots it's as if she's with her photogenic family. She and they look wonderful, but they don't say much.

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