Dots Obsession, 2009/2012 by Yayoi Kusama
Dots Obsession, 2009/2012 Yayoi Kusama

Kusama has been called the ‘princess of polka dots’. Throughout her career she has returned to the polka dot as a visual motif and a symbol – of herself and of the world.

Kusama claims that her fascination for dots came as the result of hallucinations she suffered as a child, where her whole visual field became overrun by single images: nets, flowers, or the ubiquitous dots. She channelled this experience into a philosophy of ‘self-obliteration’ where being overwhelmed is a celebratory choice, not a feverish ordeal.

Kusama has sought to cover the world in dots. In her 1968 film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration she is seen painting dots on the landscape, even applying spots of paint to the surface of a lake. She covers a horse, a cat, and her own body with polka dots. Self-obliteration became a rallying cry for Kusama in the 1960s when she led bands of performers in naked body painting actions on the streets of New York.

installation shot of I’m Here, but Nothing, 2000/2012 by Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, but Nothing 2000/2012

© Yayoi Kusama/ Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc, photograph Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley
© Tate

In her expansive paintings of the 1980s and 1990s Kusama’s dots sometimes morphed into forms with tails that suggest tadpoles or spermatozoa. In her recent installations the dots have taken on luminous qualities. I’m Here, but Nothing is an installation in a darkened room where glow-in-the-dark sticker spots cover an otherwise nondescript family living room. Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life features hundreds of round LED lights that flash in different colours, suggesting three-dimensional polka dots. Dots Obsession takes this three-dimensionality even further, with massive round red balloons – large versions of polka dots – that are themselves covered in white spots.