“I Wanted to Start a Revolution”

Stephanie Rosenthal answers 5 questions on Yayoi Kusama’s retrospective at the Gropius Bau

The Gropius Bau’s director and curator of the expansive solo presentation Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective in Berlin, shares her particular interest in the pioneering interventions of the Japanese artist and explains the continuous relevance of her art – spanning performance, happenings, paintings, fashion work and activism – in today’s art world. As part of the intense exhibition preparations and research, Rosenthal met the artist and her team several times in Tokyo and now gives insights into her personal connection to Kusama’s oeuvre.

Yayoi Kusama, Kusama with scuplptures in her Studio, New York, 1963

Yayoi Kusama with sculptures in her Studio, New York, 1963, photo collage © YAYOI KUSAMA

Sonja Borstner: Who is Yayoi Kusama and what distinguishes her as an artist?

Stephanie Rosenthal: Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist who has gained international attention since the 1960s and is today one of the best-known artists worldwide. As a woman primarily working in performance art, her work was pioneering. Her artistic position is characterised by revolutionary interventions driven by the desire for an immersive union of body and artwork, and an urge to redefine the role of women in art. In her works, she employs her own body as a placeholder, an act that anticipates today’s selfie culture. The striving to be in the picture is central to Kusama’s oeuvre – although her primary concern is the emotionalisation and fusion of the self with art. It is an approach that enables viewers to empathise immersively. From this point of view, she can be seen as a precursor of self-integration that is commonly practiced today, especially on social media platforms.

SB: How did the idea for the exhibition Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective originally arise?

SR: When I started as director of the Gropius Bau in 2018, we realised that there had never been a major retrospective of Yayoi Kusama in Germany. Yet, she is an artist who should also be looked at from a European and particularly from a German perspective. One focus of our exhibition is the influence of her time in Germany, which hasn’t been much researched so far. We have conducted very intensive, academic research that accompanies the exhibition concept, which we are certain will appeal beyond niche audiences.

Stephanie Rosenthal, Portrait, 2020. Photo: Victoria Tomaschko

SB: The research aspect is also reflected in the comprehensive catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Can you tell me what readers can expect in this publication?

SR: The publication is an extension of what the exhibition brings into focus. The catalogue is characterised by a chronology that illustrates Kusama’s life and has an increased focus on her activities in Germany and Europe. The fact that she was more present on the European podium in the late 1960s than on American ones is closely examined, which is a very unique aspect of the publication. Detailed research on her European interventions and exhibitions has never before been presented in such detail. Furthermore, the reconstructions of eight exhibitions from 1952 to 1983, which stress the artist’s personal relationship to her work, are analysed extensively. We have meticulously reproduced original exhibition floor plans in order to not only accurately trace and recreate Kusama’s presentations, but also to understand how she herself installed her own works on site. Following the artist’s approach, we, for example, decided not to be afraid to combine a variety of works from different media and color combinations in one space. After all, this is how Kusama herself practiced it.

Many different people have contributed to make this enormous exhibition production possible. For example, Andreas Lechthaler Architecture played a central role in the research process of the reconstructions. Andreas Lechthaler was in Tokyo with me, met Kusama, studying photos and floor plans and making drawings. Since the original exhibitions no longer exist as static installations, and many of the spaces have been completely rebuilt for our show, it takes a strong architectural understanding to be able to reconstruct them. For the retrospective, the exhibition architecture needed to produce the best space for the artist’s works, rather than introducing the architect’s own language.

Yayoi Kusama, A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Berlin: Prestel, 2021

I have a very personal attachment to Kusama’s beautiful paintings and paper drawings that she created in Matsumoto around 1958.
Stephanie Rosenthal, 2021

SB: You visited the Kusama Studio several times in Tokyo during the preparations for the exhibition. How and where did the first personal meeting with the artist take place?

SR: Kusama’s studio is staffed by several people, some of whom have been working there for almost 30 years. Divided into different floors, the studio houses not only the production facility, where you can see her painting studio filled with a variety of works in progress and clothing creations, but also an archive, where I spent most of my time. I actually found everything there – from personal photos to installation shots and memorabilia conceived by Kusama. It was like visiting an acquaintance who suddenly pulls out a photo album.

Meeting Kusama in person was very moving. When I met her one afternoon, she welcomed me very warmly with the word “Berlin” and a euphoric gesture. It was noticeable how happy she was and how important the exhibition was to her. I also got a glimpse of her incredible production – she showed me four or five new paintings – which she is currently focusing on. We also pay tribute to this focus by presenting her outstanding late work to the public within the exhibition.

Yayoi Kusama, The Visual Beauty of a Flower’s Life Blossoming, 2020

Yayoi Kusama, The Visual Beauty of a Flower’s Life Blossoming, 2020, Series: My Eternal Soul, 2009–ongoing, acryl on canvas, 100 x 100 cm © YAYOI KUSAMA Courtesy: the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

SB: Can you name a work or series in the exhibition that visitors shouldn’t miss?

SR: I have a very personal attachment to her beautiful paintings and paper drawings that she created in Matsumoto around 1958, which I first saw in the depots in Japan. I am also very excited about the impressive new installation A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe (2021) she has developed for our atrium. However, it is to her early works that I personally relate the most. I find them very poetic and there is a depth to them that I also find in her latest productions. This closes a circle within the exhibition, and for me also within her work.

One photograph of Kusama I find particularly intriguing is from her time in Matsumoto when she was in her early twenties. She is sitting among her paper drawings, wearing a blouse that she designed herself. Here, you can already see the origin of her cross-disciplinary practice – including art, performance, fashion and more – and how design, and especially she herself, became part of her art. I think that’s one of the most beautiful documentaries, which renders visible how this fusion of being completely enclosed, started early on.

Yayoi Kusama in her studio, 1961

Yayoi Kusama in her studio, c. 1961, New York © YAYOI KUSAMA

On the exhibition:
Yayoi Kusama’s (b. 1929) art has been shown in numerous exhibitions around the world. Galleries featuring her work have included: Boston Institute of Contemporary Art (2020); Matsumoto City Museum, Nagano (2019); Fosun Foundation, Shanghai (2019); MUSEUM MACAN, Jakarta (2018); Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2017–2018); National Gallery Singapore (2017); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (2017); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek (2015); Fundacion Malba, Buenos Aires (2013); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2011–2012); and Tate Modern, London (2011) among many others. The Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo in 2017. The retrospective at the Gropius Bau will subsequently travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel.

Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective is curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, Director of the Gropius Bau, in close collaboration with the artist and her studio in Tokyo, Japan. The exhibition draws extensively on Kusama’s personal archive which Rosenthal and the exhibition team visited in person. Additionally, they consulted among others the archive of German art historian Udo Kultermann, who shaped the artist’s career in Europe.