Sunday, 3 June 2012

Yayoi Kusama: Self-Obliteration and The Masochistic Sublime (part:2)

(This is the second part of a three-part essay series on  the art of Yayoi Kusama in reference to the sublime, anxiety and sexuality)

The recurring presence of the phallus in Kusama's work has provoked much discussion from feminist writers. The difficulties faced within feminist discourse on Kusama  concern the problem of how, without becoming complicit in reinforcing hegemonic male sexuality, to reconcile aesthetic appreciation and respect for an artist's work with their presentation of a sexuality that centres exclusively on masculine sexual agency. How then to think about expressions of sexuality that at first appear to be so subsumed by phallocentricism, the belief that desire can only be represented with the symbols of male sexuality? 

The general consensus among feminist art historians during the 1980's and 1990's such as Mignon Nixon, Whitney Chadwick, Helaine Posner and Frances Morris was that the way to resolve these problems was to interpret Kusama's work not as gripped by a phallocentric preoccupation, but as an act of appropriation, subverting the symbol of male sexuality and dominance. Helaine Posner suggests that 'Kusama's creation and repetition of the phallus suggests a desire to control male power and oppression by appropriating its most valued symbol', while Kerstin Mey similarly states Kusama's work can be 'seen to articulate an “aggressive will and fantasy” to defy oppressive male power by possessing it symbolically herself' There are many readings such as these pertaining to Kusama's 'appropriation' of the phallus, which deproblematise the appreciation of the work. Although I think there may be an element of deliberate appropriation on the part of Kusama to mock these statues of masculine assurance, I would like to suggest that the figure of the phallus in her work is irrevocably complex and problematic, and more to do with a compulsive return to sites of trauma as opposed to gestures of politicised appropriation.

Kusama's history of mental illness is often discussed in conjunction with her work in the hope of providing a method of interpretation of her exciting and anxiety-inducing creations. In an interview by Akira Tatehata  for a retrospective of her work, these connections are questioned:
Tatehata: Is the imagery of phallus-covered furniture related to your hallucinations?
Kusama: It is not my hallucinations but my will.
Tatehata: Your will to cover the space of your life with phalluses?
Kusama: Yes, because I am afraid of them. It's a 'sex obsession'.

I propose that Kusama does not return to themes of sexuality and male genitalia that frighten her in order to logically deal with the fear and anxiety they provoke, or in order to appropriate them symbolically and thus neuter the threat she experiences. Rather I suggest the behaviour this describes is a masochistic return to that which wounds her, driven by a desire for self-obliteration, a desire to lose herself in the scene that she is fearful of. The reason for this can be explained in the terms of the sublime, as a way of experiencing the 'negative pleasure' of Kant or the 'delight' of Burke. As Kusama is in control of what she creates, it cannot fully overpower her; it is in a sense the wound that heals, as she is at a creative distance from the objects that threaten her obliteration. Her wilfully transgressive forays into the masochistic pleasure of the feminine sublime can be read in terms of the Burkean sublime, which sound astonishingly like a theorisation of the way masochism functions: 'When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at a certain distance and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful'.

Kusama's compulsive return to themes that overwhelm her can thus be characterised as a search for 'negative pleasure', which she desires in order to provoke the delightful feelings of risk associated with the loss of boundaries. The effect of such negative pleasure is to shatter that which holds one together, providing a temporary dissolution of self. Leo Bersani explains the way masochistic behaviours can be a common device for one to test the natural limits of desire and human existence: 'We desire what nearly shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem, without any specific content - which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that it belongs to the non-linguistic biology of human life'. The 'self-shattering jouissance' of Kusama's masochistic artistic production may appear very much like a desire for nihilistic obliteration; yet the difference remains, as I've stated, the enforced distance of the artist's focus: to remain the creator, to keep working, prevents total destruction of the self.

This is art-making as an act of will: not as a way to overcome nature / sexuality / anxiety, as this is not always possible, but as an act of creative expression, through which one can assert one's will over that which threatens to overpower and consume. In the case of Kusama, letting one's fears and fantasies be experienced and felt means that afterwards - back at a safe distance, when one is brought back from the brink of the abyss – the resulting feeling of sureness in oneself could work as a form of catharsis. For Kusama, producing art is in a sense a way of touching a healing wound that allows her as an artist to thrive and not be obliterated by that which she creates.

(part one: "Yayoi Kusama: Sexuality, Anxiety and The Feminine Sublime")
(part three: "Yayoi Kusama: Loss of Ego and Sublime Skinlessness")

Illustrations:

Yayoi Kusama, posing with Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963

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