Yayoi Kusama: My Eternal Soul – National Art Center Tokyo

I had only heard the name Yayoi Kusama pretty recently. I knew the more famous sculptures like her pumpkins in Matsumoto and her famous polka dot motifs, and I knew of an older artist wearing eccentrically-colored wigs, but I had no name to put on them. It wasn’t until I was looking through some Tokyo art exhibits that I found out her name.

I knew I had to go. To have the opportunity to see the works of such an important living artist was something I didn’t want to miss. Her showing in Tokyo was only a few months long and if I waited another month, it’d be gone. So, I headed to Roppongi where it was at the National Art Museum.

I ended up taking the Hibiya subway line to Roppongi Station and walking about 10 minutes to the museum. The way was almost entirely underground, with signs every few hundred feet pointing you in the right direction. Otherwise, you can take the Chiyoda line to Nogizaka Station (exit 6) which spits you out right in front of the museum (and ticket booths).

This really doesn’t do the crowd justice, but see those heads in the far distance by the red building? Yeah…
The line for tickets was crazy. I jumped in line right away, but even then it was twisting and winding with four or five curves. I heard the second ticket booth wasn’t any better. Luckily, though, the line moved pretty quickly and we ended up at the counter in only about 20 minutes.

 

I got a college discount which brought my ticket to 1400 yen. They allow US college student IDs so if you have one, be sure to show it! Otherwise the adult price is 1600 yen. Elementary schoolers get in free, and I think middle schoolers pay the half price of 800 yen.

I overheard someone talking and they said that the lines weren’t usually that long. I think because I went on a Saturday and there were two popular special exhibits going on at the time, it was a bit more crowded than usual.

 

Strangely enough, the actual exhibition wasn’t as crowded as I expected it to be. Obviously, it was a pretty big gallery, but compared to the line outside, it was very empty. To get in, you simply show your ticket stub to the attendants at the front. You can rent an audio guide for 500 yen, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

 

The first room has a long mural and a note from the author about her lifework and this exhibit in particular. It was a very interesting read and really set the tone for the rest of the exhibition. Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed in that room. (Trust me, I tried…)

When you entered the exhibit, this is the sight you were greeted with.

After that, you head to the main gallery. Here, the walls are lined with canvases depicting various scenes and emotions of Kusama. These were done in her now ubiquitous colorful, haphazard style. There were also some sculptures of hers.


 

 

Apparently, the use of cameras in this room is limited as well. You can only take pictures with your smartphone camera. So, after I got scolded for using my digital camera, I stopped taking pictures. However, I feel like it helped me appreciate the artwork more, because I didn’t constantly have to worry about getting the perfect shot. It was far less stressful.

After the bright gallery room, you’re taken on a chronological journey of Kusama’s life. The rooms darken and you start with her earliest works. A few of them are from her childhood, but most are when she was a student in university studying art. The style is so different. It’s quite interesting to see the difference between her earliest works and her current stuff.

The rooms continue chronologically for the most part. We see her style evolve as she left Japan to go to America. We see her first jaunts with collages and mixed media sculpture. We see her forgotten influence on the New York art scene in the 60s and 70s and the world stage. It was truly fascinating to see how much she produced, and the variety of it.

Honestly, I didn’t care for her sculpture or collages. However, they were showing a short movie she had done, and that was really interesting. They also played a slideshow of photographs she modeled in, but those weren’t very good. I also got to see some of the books she authored, and I really want to read those sometime soon.


After that, you’re led into a sunlit area, where you can see some of her giant pumpkin statues outside and a row of mannequins covered in her famous red polka dots. Then you’re led into one of her famous mirrored infinity rooms.


To be honest, that was my favorite part. I saw the pictures my friends posted of her infinity rooms showing at the National Art Museum in DC and it looked so cool! The infinity room her lived up to the expectation, but I was sad that it was so tiny and such a small part of the exhibit. But I guess this was more of a culmination of everything she’s done, so it made sense as to why that wasn’t a focal part.

After that, we were taken to more modern times (I want to say her 90s stuff). There were more paintings, installations, and a few “upgraded” pieces that took a lot from her older stuff. In the final room was a large painting of her famous yellow and black intertwining tentacles. I’m not sure what the name of it is. But seeing that in person and seeing how much care and intricacy was put into it was amazing. The room also featured a living room set completely covered in the same pattern.

 

Seeing the room after knowing her life story gave a different perspective on things…

 

And with that, the exhibit was finished. It led back to the main room with the paintings all over the walls. I think it was a good way to finish the exhibition, because you got to see everything that came before and went into that room. You got to see her journey to her current style and artform. It was great.


The last room was actually the gift shop. And I’m a sucker for gift shops. I didn’t like that the exhibition funneled you straight through it, but you could just walk straight through it if you didn’t want to buy anything. I stood in line and bought a bunch of stuff.

Some of my haul from the gift shop
I really liked the variety of goods they sold. There were a lot of unique ones, like a pack of playing cards with her artwork on it, a pumpkin tea blend in her yellow and black pattern specifically made for this by Lupicia, and my favorite: a plushie of the artist herself. I grabbed all of them, as well as a red tote bag (it was only 500 yen!) and an artbook of every piece in the exhibit. They also had the standards like postcards, magnets, and keychains.

The checkout line was pretty long too but it also moved quickly. If you don’t have a ticket to the exhibit, you can still enter the gift shop. So if you want to pick up some cute stuff but not pay the ticket price, you can… Or, if you forgot to buy something, you can always stop in again another day.

Lastly, there is a room outside of the exhibit, near the gift shop exit. If you present your Yayoi Kusama ticket stub, you get a sheet of 5 polka dot stickers. You can enter the room and put the stickers wherever you want in the room. I had such a hard time deciding where to put them, especially because almost all the surfaces were already covered.

Look at those precariously dangling stickers, ready to fall off

 

 

Here’s a tip: don’t put them on the fabric because they will fall off! I’ve seen it happen!

If you’re tall enough to be able to reach the ceiling (I’m not) that’s a good place to stick them. Be sure to press really hard so they don’t fall down on someone’s head!

In the end, I’m really glad that I went. I ended up spending about 4 hours in total at the museum, but this was including standing in line for tickets and perusing the gift shop. The ticket price was reasonable, especially considering the magnitude of the artist and everything that went into the showing. I highly recommend seeing it if you can!

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What do you think?