Is the Yayoi Kusama Robot the Tupac Hologram of 2023?
Kusama's collaboration with Louis Vuitton went viral, boosting interest in the artist to a new high. To critics, it smacks of exploitation.
The Yayoi Kusama robot at Harrods in London. Video still courtesy Ocula.
The most social media-friendly artist of all time has gone viral yet again.
Animatronic versions of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama on display in the window of Louis Vuitton stores have been covered extensively in art media and shared widely on social media sites.
The robots, which widen their eyes and grimace while miming brush strokes, are deceptively lifelike.
'I don't know anything about Kusama,' wrote one commenter on Instagram, 'but she doesn't look happy, this person in the window. Almost like she wants to cry. What's the story here?'
The story is that Kusama has collaborated with luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton again following an earlier collab in 2012.
The new collection of over 450 items has received a powerful marketing push, including an immersive polka-dotted pop-up in the Meatpacking district, a huge digital screen takeover in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, and cameos from supermodels Bella Hadid, Gisele Bündchen, Fei-Fei Sun, and Dion Aoki, among others.
Several social media commenters asked, insinuated, or argued that the fashion giant was exploiting the 93-year-old artist, who has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric facility in Tokyo since 1977.
Kusama has described her early art practice as a way of making sense of hallucinations she experienced during a troubled youth. She spied on her cheating father for her mother, only for her mother to turn on her. She was 12 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, 16 when nukes fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With Kusama no longer appearing in public or giving interviews, her appearance in robot form feels morbid, reminiscent of the Tupac hologram that appeared at Coachella in 2012, 16 years after the rapper's death.
Commenting on a video of the animatronic Kusama posted by Jerry Saltz, art world satire account @jerrygogosian exhibited rare sincerity, saying, 'I don't think this is as harmless as it would like to make you think it is.'
Another person commented, 'I'm into it but I actually worry about her — if she's being taken advantage of in some way.'
By most accounts, Kusama remains very much involved in the projects to which her name is attached. The Wall Street Journal reported that Kusama and her staff worked with Louis Vuitton for a year and a half on the collaboration.
However involved Kusama was in the campaign, it has proven a phenomenal success for the artist's brand, with searches for her name reaching an all-time high according to Google Trends.
Searches for 'Yayoi Kusama' previously peaked in March 2017 following the opening of a major Kusama exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which went on to tour the Seattle Art Museum, The Broad, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
A major new exhibition of Kusama's works opened at Hong Kong's M+ museum on 12 November 2022 and continues through 14 May 2023. —[O]