Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Cosmic Nature’ at the NYBG Conveys Her Obsession w/ the Natural World

Above image: Dancing Pumpkin 2020, courtesy of Ota FIne Arts and David Zwirner

All Images by Robert Benson Photography

That the art world’s greatest sensation of the last decade is a woman who has passed during that time from her 80s into her 90s is certainly heartening, as the female artistic point of view continues to strive its way onto the main stages of contemporary culture. But perhaps Yayoi Kusama’s incredible recent trajectory also says something about ourselves: indeed, as we find 21st Century realities all the more difficult to reckon, making sure to take a moment to lose ourselves in that which is truly fantastical and wonder-inspiring becomes an ever more urgent proposition.

So certainly as we struggle out of this long and deadly pandemic, that the new exhibition KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden explores the artist’s obsessions with the natural world seems remarkably relevant – as human abuses of nature and mismanagement of the planet’s resources have surely been a direct cause of the sheer scope of Covid-19. And as Kusama’s work has often been a way of processing trauma, the timing of the exhibit is more than just a little poignant, with trauma having become a regular feature of our daily lives during these last fifteen months.

With so much public exposure of her prodigious oeuvre, it’s notable, nay quite thrilling that the NYBG will present several works created specifically for this exhibition, among them such trademarks as the Dancing Pumpkin (2020), positioned on the Haupt Conservatory Lawn, and a new Infinity Mirror Room, wistfully titled Illusion Inside the Heart (2020). There’s also a massive biomorphic sculpture, the appropriately cosmically named I Want to Fly to the Universe (2020), and Flower Obsession (2017/2021), the first of what she refers to as an “obliteration greenhouse.” All in all, it promises to be something of a monumental art event.

“For Kusama, cosmic nature is a life force that integrates the terrestrial and celestial orders of the universe,” explains guest curator Mika Yoshitake, Ph.D., “from both the micro- and macrocosmic perspectives she investigates in her practice. Her explorations evoke meanings that are both personal and universal. Nature is not only a central source of inspiration, but also integral to the visceral effects of Kusama’s artistic language in which organic growth and the proliferation of life are made ever-present.”

It is not widely covered, but Kusama actually grew up around the fields and greenhouses of her family’s nursery in Matsumoto, Japan – so, if we may say, the seeds of her connection to nature were planted quite early in her life. That her family was deeply, even aggressively unsupportive of her passion from a very young age to become a painter (it was simply not something that Japanese girls did back then), probably explains much about the primal nature of her work. She nurtures it, and it nurtures her back.

Life, 2015, courtesy of Ota FIne Arts and David Zwirner

It’s also telling about her prolific output over the years, as she defied her familial (and other) critics by simply creating more – and more spectacular – work from decade to decade, even as she struggled with mental health issues, and survived suicide attempts. And that work ethic is on full display with Cosmic Nature, as installations will actually change with the seasons: tulips in spring, sunflowers in summer, and giving way to, yes, her signature pumpkins come autumn. The pieces will also cleverly weave their way through the various lawns, gardens, galleries and courtyards of the NYBG, creating whimsical narratives, and telling captivating new stories.

Or as the artist herself explicates it, in somewhat more ethereal terms, “Dancing through our universe are noble souls whose magnificent forms are saturated with mystery. I invite [everyone] to explore the endlessly expanding ode to the beauty of love that is my art.”

It’s surely the best invitation you’ll receive all year.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature, will be on exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden from now until October 31.

Narcissus Garden, 1966/2021, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro
Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2002/2021, collection of the artist
My Soul Blooms Forever, 2019, courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro

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