Louis Vuitton's Yayoi Kusama robot in Manhattan (photo via Brecht Bug on Flickr )

Spotted: this side of Fifth Avenue is dotted with massive paint blob stickers, realistically rendered in the artist’s brushstrokes, touching the feet of everyone who passes. The artist is Yayoi Kusama, commonly known as “the princess of polka dots” and one of the highest-selling living female artists. These decorations are a part of Louis Vuitton’s new rounds of global campaigns in collaboration with Kusama.

“Is she alive?” I overheard the person next to me whispering to his friend in disbelief.

“Wow, she is smiling at me … Hi!” said another spectator. 

I too found myself drawn to the color-dotted sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. I searched for my phone upon seeing the uncanny dots and many onlookers, feeling slightly insecure about the fact that I did not already have it in hand. I zoomed in towards the window frame, my attention caught by the wrinkles on the animatronic Kusama’s face under the shiny, red polka-dotted pumpkin helmet. I observed her pouchy eyelids weighing on her signature (in)expression of skepticism — the rounded stare imbued with a hint of obsession that is irreducible even to its robotic facsimile. I waited for it to turn toward me.

Finally, after several slow-motion blinks, Kusama aimed her robotic stare at me. In that split second when her gaze met mine, the certitude from her sharpened pupils captured me in a sinking disquietude. I wondered: What am I looking at? The artist, the robot, a thing, or a person? And perhaps even more daunting: What is she looking at?

I wondered: What am I looking at? The artist, the robot, a thing, or a person? (photo via Brecht Bug on Flickr)

But before I dive deep into the discomfort, let us first consider the shop window.

Encased in glass against a rather plain backdrop, the Kusama robot attends to what is in front of her: eight colored dots on the shop window. Gesturing with a clean brush in her right hand, she points to the different dots and paints, suggestively, while her left arm faithfully clings to the featured Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama edition of the Capucine bag. Through the robotic performance of suggestive painting, the dots are transmitted onto the window, before making their way to us on the sidewalk.

Known for her psychedelic infinity mirror rooms, which invite audience immersion, this installation suggests an atypical, solitary undertone, as visitors watch Kusama’s robot standing alone, in an austere, spectacle-like state.

In considering the fine line between the animatronic and the anthropomorphic, what has kept me on my toes is this: How does this display of personhood take possession of me, my consciousness, and my body? 

I find myself standing uncomfortably in a collision of shame and pride. As an Asian woman myself, I feel pride while witnessing an Asian woman artist being elevated to the symbolic pinnacle of the world of consumption. But I also feel shameful to see a ginormous inflatable of the same artist crawling on top of a flagship store in Paris. What is shoved in my face is not only the radical non-personhood that Kusama is kept in but also the precarious personhood of the “yellow” woman in the Western world of signs, to begin with.

How does this display of personhood take possession of me, my consciousness, and my body? (photo Hindley Wang/Hyperallergic)

In her critical proposition Ornamentalism (2019), Anne Anlin Cheng demonstrates the particular challenge that belies the non-personhood of the “yellow” woman. She took the example of the unwearable Alexander McQueen dress made of porcelain shards exhibited at China: Through the Looking Glass, a 2015 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing, “We are looking at a peculiar form of anthropomorphism or prosopopoeia whereby the human is being used to recall objectness rather than vice versa,” she writes.

The very making of the “yellow” woman has always been synthetic rather than organic, part of a larger aesthetic project based on a material culture of objects and ornaments. Like the exquisite blue-and-white vessels and decorations, Asian women are known and expected to be mute and absent — a figure “so suffused with representation that she is invisible, so encrusted in aesthetic expectation that … [she] need not be present to generate affect,” Cheng writes. 

The proliferation of this aesthetic project seems to go hand in hand with the inadequate liberal critique of cultural appropriation or fetishization, which only exacerbate the invisibility of Asian Women.

In a recent interview with Allure magazine, pop star Gwen Stefani portrayed herself as “Japanese” in defense of her widely criticized appropriation of the Japanese Harajuku subculture for a music video, tour, and fragrance line. 

What the critiques of cultural appropriation against Stefani failed to register is that it is not simply a matter of a White celebrity making a profit off of a particular cultural aesthetic, but that the actual Harajuku girls, despite being employed of their free will, are still presented as accessories, decorations. The “human” stake in being made into a literal perfume bottle is not the same for her Japanese performers — “Love,” “Angel,” “Music,” and “Baby” — as it is for Stefani. Being Japanese is not a costume that you can take off. And I can’t even begin to articulate the fear and rage of being catcalled “Konichiwa.”

With the Louis Vuitton installation, the stereotypical mute and absent Asian woman is put on display along the rank of commodity goods as part of a global marketing project, entangling the artist’s image with questions of autonomy, agency, and objecthood.

The reality of Kusama’s literal containment within the psychiatric institution is corroborated by this animatronic artist in the shop window, where art is subordinated to the consumer market in the name of “collaboration.” While a level of her interiority is broadcast to the world, the world itself is kept away from her.

However, even given her mental condition, there is a particular danger in leaving Kusama in a disempowered position, as appealing as that might be to our liberal sensibilities. The complicity of the artist’s estate in the capitalist order of monetization makes it slippery to simply sympathize with her potential loss. After all, it is still a collaboration between a luxury brand and a global creative enterprise.  

Make no mistake: This is not another critique of the male gaze, or even the Western gaze. This is a presentation of my gaze, though I am struggling to articulate it myself. I feel trapped on the other side of the looking glass, unable to see through. But I see the street, splattered with dots that correspond with the dominant order of the world: one that is compulsory, replicable, endless, inexhaustive, infectious, homogenizing, and dizzying. And yet, full of holes.

The reality of Kusama’s literal containment within the psychiatric institution is corroborated by this animatronic artist in the shop window. (photo Hindley Wang/Hyperallergic)

Hindley Wang is a New York-based freelance writer and translator from Shanghai. She is interested in the aesthetics, politics, and poetics of transcultural practices and postcolonial futures. You can follow...

One reply on “The Objectification of Yayoi Kusama”

  1. Thank you for this article. I am a white woman. I have just read Victor Ray’s book “On Critical Race Theory.” The book has helped me begin to understand the structural racism in America. Adding capitalism to it is another troubling aspect. My initial reaction after reading your article is revulsion at the objectification of Yayoi Kusama. I am only passingly familiar with the artist, and you have motivated me to read more about her. Thank you.

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