Yayoi Kusama and Janelle Low

Written by Deanna Versace

Yayoi Kusama and Janelle Low are two female Asian artists who, through their art practices challenge history, tradition and culture. Yayoi Kusama is a professional Japanese artist who had lived in poverty and experienced the tragic events of WW2. Kusama’s installations expand on her mental health experiences which were developed from traumatic historical events. These events had consequently influenced her work visually and aesthetically. Janelle Low is an Asian-Australian contemporary artist who utilises her Asian culture as inspiration for her photography on the history of heterosexual marriages. Through different visual aesthetics of colour, shape and symbology, both artists’ practice comment on Asian tradition and culture. This essay will explore how female artists are driven, creative, unique and important to the Asian art industry.

Yayoi Kusama is an exceptional Japanese artist who had experienced poverty and historical events which ultimately influenced her aspirations in art. Kusama’s childhood in Japan had inspired her artworks. The artist’s family had experienced great financial struggle from the Great Depression and Japan’s weak economic growth (Yamamura 2012). Kusama’s childhood and experience of poverty had inspired creativity and artistic endeavours. Kusama’s poor economic status exposed her to pursue art as a distraction from the horrific events of war in Japan. To distract Kusama from yet another war called the 15th War of Japan (Yamamura 2012), her family exposed her to Japanese art. If this historical event had not taken place, Kusama would arguably not have experienced art, which was essential to her personal growth and international career. Kusama continuously seeing the events of WW2 at the beginning of her art career, encouraged overseas travel which influenced her growth as a Japanese artist. Writer Yamamura (2012, p.5) describes the artist’s emerging career as “historical sequence namely the radical changes” of that period. Demonstrating the events of WW2 as irrationally changing in Kusama’s life which, gave her the opportunity to expand her practice as an international Japanese artist. Kusama’s life living in war and poverty gave her a clear influence of what she wanted the beginning of her career to represent in the artwork. Kusama identifies a war full of bombs and violence is not the artist’s idea of living a satisfying life which, should be based on peace and tranquillity for the world (Kusama 2016). Kusama’s experience of the chaos and tragedy of war influenced a passion that might not have been explored.

Kusama’s installations were derived from her memories of growing up with war and the mental health problems that developed from that. Kusama developed ongoing mental health conditions from experiencing traumatising events of civil war in Japan. Author Yamamura (2012, p.32) analysed Kusama’s mental diagnosis from a “suffer from anxiety neurosis” making “artistic vision to her aberrant”. Kusama’s anxiety is a continuous influence in her artistic career. Figure 1 depicts strong colourful spots spreading around pumpkins to demonstrate a modern style approach to Kusama’s work which, shows metallic tones of sliver that has bold and 3D effects (Kusama 2016, p.66).  Figure 1
illustrates how traditional artworks are slowly fading from paintings to installations. Kusama’s installation demonstrates powerful meanings of pumpkins as it is a symbol from her childhood which was an extremely important chapter in her history. The symbol of the pumpkins is Kusama’s memory of her family growing vegetables in their garden which, was crucial in preventing hunger in WW2 (Architectural Digest 2021). Kusama’s childhood has significant value of representing her family memories which, would not have been possible to display the beautiful art with a scaring personal life. Kusama had not only used colour to challenge traditional expectations but also created an experience in which the viewers can witness what goes on in her own mind.  Figure 1
gives the audience an idea of how Kusama’s perspective on the world is not simple, rather, it is a rainbow full of pumpkins as her reality of the vision she has seen in the past that still haunts her today (Kusama 2016).  Figure 1
illustrates that Kusama’s individuality as a Japanese artist will never be compared to a traditional realistic quality of what an artist should be or create in the art industry. Yayoi Kusama’s installations are the expectation of modern art which breaks frees of traditional practices to showcase historical point of past significant event in an artist’s life.

Janelle Low explores feminism, traditional family values and the social expectations of Asian women getting married throughout. Low’s perspective is shown in photographic prints of female’s social position in entering a heterosexual marriage in which places them in union controlled by a man. As shown in
Figure 2
, the bride is represented in the centre, seated around other woman who are single, in a family portrait about the bride becoming property to a man (Low 2020).
Figure 2
illustrates Low’s Asian heritage and its heavy influence on her work. It displays the way in which marriage places women in a vulnerable position, making them objects for men. Low’s creation in her photography shows the effects of cultural marriages destroying self-identity.
Figure 2
displays the faces of the women crushed with embellishments by inventing golden textures foils that stand out from dark tones of the old fashion photograph (Low 2020).
Figure 2
exemplifies women losing their independence and individuality as a productive member in society by trying to fulfill familial and cultural expectations. Low’s artwork has used the traditional style photography as a way to expose Asian cultures and to simultaneously create feminist awareness.
Figure 2
demonstrates monochrome tones that are vintage photography tainted effects to expand the style of the era which showcases the themes of daughters in the history with no emotions (Low 2020). Visually recovering the expectation of daughters, sisters and cousins marrying for security and safety with a home that men provided at that time. Low’s artwork series expands how the clothes of the bride represents culture and history, particularly with the white wedding dress symbolic of pure innocence. The photographic print in
Figure 3
is a portrait of bride wearing white, implying she is a virgin giving up her virginity to her husband as she enters in this marriage (Low 2021). Expanding on the symbology, the white may represent being clean and untouched. Janelle Low’s practice demonstrates Asian culture of young females married off to men continuing on family traditions without no other plans for themselves in the future.

Kusama’s spontaneous colour tones compare to Low’s photographs’ dark tones demonstrate their different perspectives on their traditional Asian culture. Kusama’s experience is fuelled by war and violence while Low focusses on traditional dark representation of women in their families. Figure 1
displays playful installations of objects that have deeper meaning connected to the tragic events of war (Kusama 2016). In comparison,
Figure 3
illustrates the preservation of history, utilising realistic visual imagery that represents a clear message on females in marriages (Low 2020). This comparison expresses how each artist concentrates on different parts of the history that is relevant to their own personal experiences which, is connected to historical moments of Asian culture. Kusama’s colours were not only simple but was the reputation of rhyme compare to Low’s contemporary work of monochrome dark tones that works in a series.
Figure 1
illustrates how simple patterns doesn’t require much skill to construct a powerful work (Kusama 2016). However, Low’s work in
Figure 3
based on structure requires highly skilled photography and printmaking to create dark tones clear and printed (Low 2021). These examples visually demonstrates how each artist’s utilised different styles and technical skills to represent their Asian culture, that showcases strength and passion to develop meaningful works. Both female artists demonstrated powerful representation of their Asian culture throughout the expressive practice of colourful aesthetics and dark tones in unique prints.

In conclusion, international Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and Asian-Australian contemporary artist Janelle Low, through their artworks, demonstrates the themes of tradition and historical events in their culture. Both artists represent a collection of artworks that are personal experience. Yayoi Kusama’s childhood trauma from WW2 living in poverty began her career and exposed her to opportunities in the art industry. Kusama also challenged traditional artworks by making installations a common thing for exhibitions and public spaces. Janelle Low’s controversial photographic prints creates a feminist awareness on the roles of females have changed in Asian cultures, particularly in relation to marriage expectations. Each artist gives the opportunity for other Asian artists to be inspired by both history and tradition. That will inspire more artists to be strong and passionate about what they represent into the world and to create meaningful experiences for women in the art industry.

Figure 1: Pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama, 2015, Installation for Give Me Love Exhibition.

Figure 2:
At your Surface
 by Janelle Low, 2018, inkjet print with gold leaf embellishments and gold lustre.

Figure 3:
At your Surface
 by Janelle Low, 2018, inkjet print with gold leaf embellishments and gold lustre.

“Artist Janelle Low”, Net Victoria, National Exhibitions Touring Supporting Victoria, viewed 2021, <netsvictoria.org.au/artist/janelle-low/>.

“COUNIHAN GALLERY: Disobedient Daughters”, This Is No Fantasy, viewed 2021, <thisisnofantasy.com /counihan-gallery-disobedient-daughters/>.

“Disobedient Daughters Exhibition”, Brunswick Design District, viewed 2020, <bdd.org.au/news/disobedient-daughters-exhibition/>

“Janelle Low”, Personal CV Page, viewed 2021, <www.janellelow.com/?page_id=259>.

Jerreat-Poole, A & Brophy, S 2020, “Encounters with Kusama: disability, feminism and the mediated Mad art of #InfiniteKusama”. Feminist Media Studies, pp.1-18.

Kusama, Y 2016, “Yayoi Kusama: Give Me Love”. New York: David Zwirner Books, pp. 62-75.

Russell, A 2015, “Pumpkins and Polka Dots Land in Chelsea; Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition, ‘Give Me Love’ at David Zwirner” , The Wall Street journal, Eastern Edition, p.2 

Sporn ,S 2021 “Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkins and Polka Dots Have Officially Taken Over The New York Botanical Garden”, Architectural Digest , viewed 9th April 2021, <www.architecturaldigest.com/story/yayoi-kusamas-pumpkins-and-polka-dots-have-officially-taken-over-the-new-york-botanical-garden>.

Sullivan, MR 2015, “Reflective Acts and Mirrors Images: Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden”, History of Photography, Vol.39, pp.405-423 

Yamamura, M 2012, “Yayoi Kusama: Biography and Cultural, confrontation, 1945-1969”, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing pp.5-15