People have long pondered the concept of identity. Who are we? Where do we come from? Perhaps more pressingly, where do we go? Myriad answers have appeared over the years as various modes of thinking come and go, fading in and out of fashion. Different cultures value different kinds of answer too. The West is often seen as pro-individualist. ‘I’ am ‘me’, and ‘I’ come first, my interactions with society second. Individualism, as the name suggests, places the onus on the individual and their freedoms. In contrast, many eastern cultures are typically viewed as ‘collectivist’ societies. Group cohesion comes first, surpassing any particular individual’s freedom. This view (west equals individualist, east equals collectivist) lacks nuance and fails to fully comprehend differences in culture, but the fact that it exists is perhaps interesting in itself. It suggests that around the world, our views on individuality, identity, and connection to others differ widely depending on our different cultural backgrounds.
Connection and connectivity feel like the buzzwords of the modern era – with the advent of social media and the smartphone, we’re more connected than ever, but, as many will attest to, feel increasingly isolated from the world around us. This is perhaps because we’re viewing connection as the transfer of information from one party to another. A text may be a way of making contact and sharing news, but it lacks that emotional touch that a face-to-face conversation, perhaps even a phone conversation, can deliver. Perhaps there is something deeper to this concept of connection, something beneath the surface level exchange that affects us. Perhaps it’s this deeper connection that feels like it’s increasingly absent from our lives. The question then stands – how exactly are we, as people, connected to each other? Artists around the world have long considered the answer – today we’ll take a look at two Japanese artists and their work in order to gain a deeper understanding of what they believe connection can be, and how we’re bound to the people around us.
Kusama Yayoi needs no introduction – she is possibly now the world’s most popular artist, with over five million visitors going to see her works between 2013-2018. She’s been creating for much longer, with her earliest works dating back to the 1950s, but her art has found a whole new level of success in the digital age, suggesting there’s something striking a chord with people around the world. Kusama produces work in a variety of different media, from performance pieces to sculptures and installations, and uses a number of motifs: dots, pumpkins and mirrors among her most famous. She often makes use of endlessly repeating patterns, such as in her Infinity Nets, which can make the viewer feel lost in her works, and are perhaps key to understanding her thought process while creating. Kusama has long suffered from poor mental health, and has made her home in a Tokyo psychiatric asylum, which she voluntarily moved to back in 1977. She’s often said that art and the creative process is what’s kept her alive, and that her creations are her sharing the intrusive thoughts and psychological space she inhabits, looking for empathy from the world around her.
While her themes can sometimes overlap with those of Kusama, Shiota Chiharu has her own set of motifs and a completely different approach to her work. Shiota was born in Osaka in the 70s and has become well-known for her intricately crafted installations featuring vast numbers of threads designed to display the invisible connections that surround us, with exhibitions of her work taking place around the globe. Her pieces are massive, encompassing entire rooms, dramatic and visually striking, often evoking uncomfortable feelings of dread and loneliness from audiences. Through her works, Shiota aims to expose her innermost self – all of the uncomfortable feelings and ties that bind her. In her own words, her work ‘is a dialogue with [her] unveiled, naked soul’.
Shiota’s work and its links with human bonds are perhaps more immediate than Kusama’s. The thread is a long-standing symbol of fate and of connection, almost to the point of cliché – in manga Blue Period, for instance, when the protagonist is tasked with creating a work depicting ‘connection’ and he uses thread as his motif, his teacher asks him whether this is truly how he sees ‘connection’ or if he’s simply drawn what he felt he was supposed to. It is rare however, to see the motif used as strikingly and on such a scale as Shiota does. Playing off preconceived notions of ‘thread’ and ‘connection’, Shiota creates pieces of art that feel both abstract and accessible. Walking into one of her installations provokes an immediate emotional reaction, even before you stop to consider deeper intention behind her work. Her exhibition at the Mori Art Gallery in Roppongi, The Soul Trembles, featured a burnt out piano exploding in a mess of black thread that reached up towards the ceiling and spread out throughout the room. The melancholy of desolation was palpable in the air.
Writing about Shiota’s installation Direction of Consciousness, Domaine De Chaumont-Sur-Loire said that in ‘space bereft of human presence, of any physical presence’ that the threads become symbols of ‘memory, symbols of time’ which are then ‘woven into a web that links inert objects to the past, to moments, to presences that now only exist in memory’. Using the thread, Shiota makes all of those invisible connections visible, impossible to ignore. She suggests that these intangible experiences, these roots, not only influence the world around us but affect our souls themselves. We are no individual, cut off from society, but a mess of interpersonal links and dependent on our roots. It’s no coincidence that Shiota’s threads are so numerous that it’s almost impossible to make out any individual strand – commenting on her work for Domaine de Chaumont, the artist said that ‘there’s a moment when the fine lines come together and grow. And then suddenly, we can no longer follow the lines. When each thread is no longer visible, it seems like the truth hidden inside finally becomes visible’.
Through her work, Shiota ties us, physically and figuratively, into the world around us, almost echoing the biocentric environmentalist viewpoints of Hayao Miyazaki by shifting the focus away from the individual and onto the collective. Her threads connect and gather and intertwine until they disappear from view, one blending into the crowd. This concept will be familiar to anyone who has followed Kusama’s work. Kusama’s polka dots are one of her signature motifs, famously used all over her pumpkins, but also in her Obliteration Room. In these all white fully furnished chambers, visitors are given polka dot stickers which they are then invited to place somewhere in the room. In the early stages of the installation, it’s easy to make out individual furniture, but as guests continue to place stickers, everything begins to disappear into a mass of polka dots to the point where they lose their original form and are, effectively, obliterated. It’s an interesting parallel, one that only deepens the more you look into what the polka dot means to Kusama.
Through the years, Kusama has stated that the dots are emblematic of her own childhood trauma, a fragment of the past that lingers in the present. Just like the threads of Shiota, the polka dot is a timeless herald of our own roots, tying us into something greater than our present individual self. Shiota’s threads tie us to each other, bind us to the innate memory of the world, and Kusama’s dots connect us to ourselves, both reminding us that we are part of a collective, a bundle of connections in which the self is obliterated.
I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Nets are another series of Kusama artworks which have only grown in popularity over time. The series sees Kusama creating endlessly repeating monochromatic loops, normally white, although she has also used other colours, spreading out and covering the canvas. Repetition is something Kusama has used throughout her artistic career, something she claims helps her calm the intrusive visions she experiences and make sense of the world around her. As these loops come together, the lines form a net which spreads seemingly endlessly over the canvas, almost making the viewer feel like they’re caught up inside it. The works are hypnotic, seeming to undulate and shift the more you look at them, giving the impression that they themselves are alive – a living, endless net that swallows the viewer and entangles them in Kusama’s world, and, by extension, binds them to each other. Once again, the audience is drawn into the collective, even through a viewpoint as seemingly subjective and individual as Kusama’s.
There are of course, areas in which the artists differ, but it’s interesting to note that they can work as rather beautiful mirrors of each other. Where Shiota’s installations seem immediately collectivist, the threads tying us into some intangible shared experience, they hide a deeper individualist core, where the artist searches for her own elusive soul in the indistinguishable mass. Kusama’s work is seemingly so unique that it’s hard to see it as anything but individualistic – she is famously nonconformist – but, upon closer inspection, reveals a much more collectivist mindset, where, as with Shiota’s threads, the individual is obliterated by their connection to the collective, lost in a mass of polka dots.
At the beginning of this examination of two artists’ work, we noted how views on the individual versus the collective shift around the world. Here, we’ve only looked at a Japanese perspective, albeit expressed through different media and motifs, but it’s interesting to note how the focus is less on the traditional view of collectivism as ‘the individual’s needs are superseded by those of the collective’ and more on how the individual’s connections to the collective shape and nourish them, binding them into a shared human experience. For both Shiota and Kusama, connections – with the self, with others, with nature – form the core of their work, making them a great place to start when thinking about how our bonds tether us to each other and affect our lives. Connection is important – say Shiota and Kusama – not just as an exchange of information, but as a sharing of emotions, or histories, of viewpoints, and that, quite possibly, it is connection that makes us truly human.