Polka Dots and Rose Petals: Feminism through the eyes of artists Yayoi Kusama and Andy Mullens 

Written by Ashley Worthington

Artists Yayoi Kusama and Andy Mullens use their multi-disciplinary practices to explore notions of feminism and depict how the female body is central to these ideas. While these artists both examine how the body is represented in different ways, both focus on the power of nakedness and how the nude figure is central to the exploration of feminism as it deals with ideas of the gaze. Kusama’s Anatomic Explosion happenings in the 1960s played with ideas of the gaze by enlisting the public to consider the difference between a person being nude or being merely naked. Kusama did this by presenting unclothed figures in public settings, where it would be difficult to miss them. Mullens’ 2019  Australasian Beauty similarly employs the use of the naked figure, however, she instead chooses to use her own body as the subject of her work. In doing so, Mullens transforms the power dynamics typically associated with naked women; ones of submission and defenselessness, she uses the gaze to place herself as the observer of others. In addition to this, Mullens’ work explores the fetishisation of Asian women, again through ideas of the gaze.  Nakedness as a subject in art has typically been dominated by men. In this essay, I will explore how these female artists operate to subvert expectations conventionally assigned to works in which the female body is central. This paper discusses themes of feminism as explored by two female Asian artists, however, it is important to note that this paper is written from the perspective of a white female, and can therefore not accurately examine the experiences of these women of colour.

Kusama has been a significant figure in contemporary art for years, with many of her works bringing forth ideas of feminism through both the use of the naked body as well as her famous polka dots (Hoptman 1998). Kusama was born to strict, conservative parents in Japan, and it was not until she moved to New York in 1958, that she first incorporated happenings into her art practice, combining this medium with her iconic polka dots to create captivating performances (National Gallery Singapore 2017). New York in the early 1960s saw countless strikes and protests surrounding many topics; Kusama’s move to this new city saw her focus on themes of war, poverty and feminism (2018). Kusama’s 1960s Anatomic Explosion happenings (see Figure 1) saw the artist enlist individuals to dance naked around well-known sites in New York. Sites visited during these happenings included the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, the New York Stock Exchange and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was these happenings that, as stated by author and art critic Charlotte Mullins, saw Kusama, ‘take control of the female body’ (2019:9), thus enlisting viewers to consider what the naked body may represent.

The question of what is ‘nude’ versus what is ‘naked’ has been explored by many artists and critics alike, and was first posed by renowned art critic John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing. In this text, Berger discusses this divide between ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ and comes to the conclusion that ‘nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder’ (1972:48), therefore suggesting that the decision of what the body represents is determined by the artist’s intentions. Kenneth Clark, a somewhat more conservative art historian, claims in his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, that the nude is ‘balanced, prosperous and confident’, while the naked body is ‘huddled and defenceless’ (1956:207). Through analysis of these art critics’ positions, it can be determined that Kusama was concerned with challenging the notion of the ‘naked’ through the confident, unapologetic nature of her happenings; with her performers being far from ‘huddled and defenceless’. She, therefore, subverts typical considerations of the ‘nude’ by taking its power and giving it to the ‘naked’.

Kusama considers the historical significance of the nude, typically as a female figure existing only to be looked at, and subverts it, instead showing audiences the raw nature of nakedness. Kusama positions herself as the sole clothed individual in these Anatomic Explosion happenings, challenging power dynamics by taking on the position of dominance. While other participants have been painted with her polka dots in order ‘obliterate’ themselves (1998:388). Kusama, in placing the naked body in a public setting, has subverted the expectations typically placed upon historically docile nudes (Berger 1972). She has instead ‘demanded that critics and consumers alike pay attention to her’ (2019:199). This, in turn, introduces ideas of the gaze.

The idea of the female gaze versus the male gaze was first introduced by author and film theorist Laura Mulvey in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema where she coins the term ‘male gaze’. She defines this as an often submissive woman being positioned as an object of heterosexual male desire  (Mulvey 1975). In response to this, we can consider the female gaze as the subversion of the male counterpart, in which a woman may still be the subject, but rather than merely being seen as an object, the gaze is instead turned inwards, and she now gazes at herself (Dirse 2013). In considering the female gaze, we can see Kusama’s significance in feminist art. Placing herself in a position so that so many can freely gaze upon her, it is clear that Kusama is by no means ‘defenceless’ and is instead expressing her bodily autonomy. We can see the enduring value placed upon these Anatomic Explosion works as Kusama has ‘remained at the forefront of the avant-garde for the past seven decades’, as stated by art historian Katy Hessle in her book The Story of Art Without Men (2022:287). Through the public placement of herself, as well as the naked figures surrounding her, it is clear that Kusama has taken back control of the female body and challenged what it means to be naked; as it can undoubtedly be considered a position of power.

Looking some sixty years since Kusama’s Anatomic Explosion happenings, female artists are still expressing their desire for bodily autonomy. They are still fighting for the right to be seen as whole beings rather than merely objects to be admired by the opposite sex. Andy Mullens is an Asian-Australian multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra. Through her works, Mullens draws upon her heritage as a Vietnamese-Australian to investigate themes of ‘understanding and examining authenticity… and affirming ownership of culture’ (Mullens 2022). Born to a refugee mother, Mullens often found herself alienated in the Anglosphere, and has since used her experience growing up as Asian-Australian as a case study for her works. It was in experiencing this othering that her art practice was born; by beginning to consider the identities of the individual as well as the collective (Andy Mullens 2022).

Figure 2: Mullens A (2019) Australasian Beauty [Photomedia]. Image courtesy of the artist. Figure 2: Mullens A (2019) Australasian Beauty [Photomedia]. Image courtesy of the artist. 
Australasian Beauty (see figure 2) was a 2019 solo exhibition consisting of photo media artworks, with the main work depicting the artist lying naked amongst rose petals, with only parts of her covered. The artist stares directly into the lens of the camera, in turn, staring directly at the audience as they gaze upon her naked figure. Considering this artwork in terms of the male gaze versus the female gaze, we can see that in maintaining eye contact with her audience, Mullens has been able to maintain power over her own figure, despite lying completely vulnerable amongst the roses. This again links to Berger’s idea of how women are historically depicted in nude paintings, existing to feed an appetite of male desire, ‘existing to be looked at’ (1972:48). Mullens uses her own gaze as an instrument of subversion. She does this through the use of photography as her medium, as the camera lens makes for a less ambiguous stare than a painting might. Berger states, ‘every photograph is, in fact, a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality’ (2013:21), suggesting that in selecting photography, Mullens is confirming the reality that Asian women face in a majorly white society, a reality in which they exist in to satisfy the ‘male, white, colonised gaze’ (Andy Mullens 2019).

While the work with Mullens lying amongst the rose petals appears to be the focal point of Australasian Beauty, as it is the ‘film poster’ of the exhibition, there are also multiple accompanying inkjet prints of photographs. The main film poster measures 114.90 x 76.10cm, while the accompanying prints each measure 45.0 x 80.0cm. The contrast of these bold, dark works being displayed on stark white walls, as well as their large scale, makes their impact more significant, as the audience becomes wrapped in images of the artist, unable to escape her gaze. Each of these accompanying images maintains the red roses as the main focal point, with images including a rose being pruned, the artist in a bath of rose petals, and a close-up of the artist's face, with a rose petal between her lips. Red roses are universally understood as a symbol of love or romance or passion, however, it appears that in this work they instead symbolise desire, which leads into another of Mullens’ main concerns in her works; the fetishisation of Asian women (Andy Mullens 2022).

This work was featured in the 2021 Melbourne exhibition Disobedient Daughters, curated by Sophia Cai. This exhibition aimed to ‘critically examine stereotypical images of Asian women in a global context’ (Counihan Gallery Melbourne 2021). The main motif of this exhibition links directly to Mullens’ naming of her work as Australasian Beauty, which is a direct reference to the 1999 film entitled American Beauty. In using this particular film as her inspiration, as well as her use of symbolic red roses, Mullens is referencing how Asian women have historically been used as ‘shallow tropes…made for visual pleasure’ (2019), and are often fetishised by the media. Author Mark Weeks, in his article examining American Beauty, states that the inherent ideology in the film was ‘that the self could feel both liberated and enslaved at the same time’ (2015:50). In understanding this aspect of American Beauty, we can see that by choosing to reference this film, Mullens is examining enduring stereotypes placed upon Asian women; how they are forced into an unwarranted ‘portrayal of erotic fantasy’ (2015:49). In recontextualising this 1990s American film into modern-day Australia, we can see that Mullens, rather than succumbing to these stereotypes, is instead expressing her agency by using her gaze to ask ‘who is looking at whom?’ (Andy Mullens 2019). In expressing feminist values and becoming both the creator of the work and the subject of that same work, Mullens has challenged the power dynamics placed upon her as an Asian-Australian woman.

The works of both Yayoi Kusama and Andy Mullens can clearly be viewed as works of significance in the exploration of feminism. While operating in different contexts, both artists have explored notions of the gaze and placed the naked female body as a central figure in their works. The picture of women in these works is one of power and autonomy, one where simply being naked does not strip a woman of her agency. Overall, both artists have subverted expectations typically placed upon female figures by utilising their own experiences as Asian women. This has been achieved through the careful consideration of the gaze in their works, as well as the subversion of judgements typically placed upon women's unclothed bodies.

Figure 1: Kusama Y (1968) Anatomic Explosion [Photograph of happening]. Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Firenze.

Figure 2: Mullens A (2019) Australasian Beauty [Photomedia]. Image courtesy of the artist.

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