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Race, Gender, Antiquity: Reflecting on Asian Femininity in Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden

Patricia Kim

New York University

“I fluctuate between feelings of reality and unreality. I am neither Christian nor a Buddhist. Nor do I possess great self-control. I find myself stranded in a strangely mechanized and standardized, homogenous environment. I feel this most keenly in highly civilised America, and especially in New York.”

--Yayoi Kusama in her autobiography, Infinity Net (2003)

In 1966, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama debuted her sculptural, participatory installation Narcissus Garden at the 33rd Venice Biennale. The outdoor installation included 1,500 plastic mirror balls sprawled across a green lawn. Passersby engaged directly with Kusama’s garden, pushing around their own reflections caught on the surfaces of the plastic balls. The installation re-enacts the story of Narcissus, best known to us through Ovid’s writings, who one day caught a glimpse of his own beautiful reflection. Ovid tells us that this glimpse filled Narcissus with erotic desire for his own reflection, and that his bittersweet love eventually led to his death and the transformation of his body into a flower. While Kusama’s entry did not represent any one nation, the artist inserted herself into the installation as if a central part of it. In photographs documenting the Biennale, Kusama appears as a main fixture of her installation, costumed in a golden kimono and silver obi, undoubtedly highlighting her Japanese identity in an international scene. Narcissus Garden has since displayed across the globe, including in major cities throughout Asia.

The majority of scholars analyze this particular installation, and indeed, Kusama’s entire oeuvre, in terms of the tensions between self-publicity and self-obliteration. What is more, both past critics and present scholars discuss her Japanese heritage as costume, decentering her Asianness precisely by casting it as an immutable feature rather than considering the ways that racial thinking interpellates the production and reception of her work. My paper both intervenes in and joins dominant discourses around Kusama’s sculptural installations, performances, and writings by addressing the ways that the aesthetics and myths of the ‘Classical past’ (that is, the history of the West and of whiteness) figure in her work. On the one hand, I build on the conversations around Kusama’s engagements with the myth of Narcissus in her art practice. On the other, my paper will examine how Greco-Roman culture informed her uncanny experience as a raced and gendered body—that is, an Asian woman—in the Post-War art world, a network of cities and artists in America and western Europe. Then, I consider the implications of displaying Narcissus Garden and Classical myth through modern and contemporary art in cities throughout East Asia.

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Classics In/Out of Asia

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