With her iridescent orange hair, brightly coloured clothing and blood-red lipstick, avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is one of the world's most colourful creatives.

Just how colourful Kusama, 88, can be will be seen at Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki this summer when thousands of children "obliterate" the gallery's Creative Learning Centre.

The Obliteration Room is an installation created by Kusama in 2002 for the Queensland Art Gallery. It proved so popular it's since toured to England, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, China, South Korea, Switzerland and France as well as our own Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Yayoi Kusama's The Obliteration Room starts off stark white but will soon be one of the most colourful spaces in Auckland Art Galley.
Yayoi Kusama's The Obliteration Room starts off stark white but will soon be one of the most colourful spaces in Auckland Art Galley.

It opens in Auckland today, starting as a New Zealand living room drained of colour. The white walls, ceiling, furniture and objects will be completely covered by a mass build-up of dots in a dizzying array of colour as visitors apply brightly coloured stickers in various sizes to every surface.

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In short, it makes artists of us all — and remembering and nurturing our creativity has long been an important driver in Kusama's life. Ask her what art says about the world that words alone cannot express, and she answers with a degree of sadness but also hope.

"With so many wars, terrorism, genocide and hatred between people, our current world holds so much misfortune," she says.

"Art is not as simple as looking at flowers and beautiful things, art pioneers a fight against this sorrow by reaching to the hearts of fellow humans. For the sake of peace for humanity and to make the world a place free of war, I continue to fight through my art and hope I can contribute to love and peace in the world."

Yayoi Kusama's The Obliteration Room sees a stark white space transformed with the use of colourful dots.
Yayoi Kusama's The Obliteration Room sees a stark white space transformed with the use of colourful dots.

Born in 1929, Kusama didn't have an easy childhood and, aged 10, started experiencing hallucinations that have fuelled her creativity. She has spoken previously of patterns in fabric coming to life, seeing dense fields of dots — which led to her enduring interest in them — and these engulfing her. She's termed this "self-obliteration".

She says The Obliteration Room is important because it helps the public relate to the artistic philosophy she's kept since childhood.

"It relates to losing one's life at the end of the universe while keeping an endless desire of love."

Already showing signs of being a promising painter, life changed when, aged 13, Kusama was sent to work in a factory to sew parachutes for the Japanese army. They were dark days and she admits there have been occasions in her life when art has pulled her out of bleak moods.

"So often, my life journey as an artist has saved me from suicide. My wish is to spend the rest of my life surrounded by amazing art, thus helping me to bear the most difficult of hardships," she says.

"It is the uplifting of one's soul while still alive. I have been engaged with art my whole life and have devoted all my time to it. I am grateful I have been able to lead my life in this way, with endless effort and ardent wishes. "

It has, indeed, been a lifelong journey for her.

After World War II, Kusama went to study painting in Kyoto but, frustrated by the strictures of traditional Japanese art, moved to New York in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s, she'd become well known in the art world for her provocative happenings and exhibitions.

Now, for almost 70 years, Kusama has painted and made collages, sculpture, performances, films, installations and environmental art, literature, product design and fashion, including a 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton. She was named in 2014 by Art newspaper as the world's most popular artist, based on figures for global museum attendance and, in 2016, was one of Time Magazine's World's 100 Most Influential People.

Lowdown
What: Yayoi Kusama — The Obliteration Room.
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, until April 2