Kusama X Vuitton: ‘I Was Finally Able To Bring Home The Crown’

Ota Fine Arts Instagram post of Kusama visiting the Louis Vuitton Omotesando store and Harajuku pop-up, 20 January 2023, confirming that the artist is indeed aware of the collab.
Kusama mannequin installed at the NYC 5th Avenue Vuitton store in 2012, still from NHK/BBC

This will be one of two posts about the current collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton. The reaction to the current campaign feels different from the original 2012 campaign. There is concern over how much the 93-year-old artist was involved in the collab, given its vast scale and its hundreds of related products, or even if she is aware of it. This concern was exacerbated by photos on Instagram of a collector posing with a seemingly disoriented Kusama in her hospital, which were particularly at odds with the elaborately styled and carefully managed character she presents at her public appearances.

Kusama being photographed holding various Louis Vuitton products in 2012, image: NHK/BBC

This worry of exploitation of an artist by, in this case, a cabal of dealers and a the world’s biggest luxury goods company owned by the world’s richest man, is valid, but not easily addressable. I don’t know how this deal went down, or who gets what from it, except that it is clearly massive, and involves the concerted, sustained efforts and investments of some of the most powerful people in the art, fashion, and retail industries. It seems significant that the content of this collab is based, not on new work or effort by Kusama, but by an existing product—literally one object, a painted trunk—from the 2012 campaign. [The second post will be a closer look at what is actually happening on the ground, which goes far beyond animatronics.]

The Product Is Present: In 2012 NHK/BBC filmed Kusama’s entourage unable to rouse her from bed for her LVMH-sponsored Whitney dinner, where her empty seat was filled by a handbag.

Which means it is entirely possible that Kusama did nothing, and didn’t need to do anything, and that her and LVMH’s systems created it all, with her blessing. Or even just her assent. [Which, if she didn’t know about it before, she was certainly on board by January 20th, when her main dealer, Hidenori Ota, wheeled the LV-wrapped artist to Harajuku for a photo-opp.] But the one thing I am sure of, is that the Louis Vuitton project is entirely of a piece with Kusama’s artistic practice, and it fits perfectly into her vision of the world, and of how her work and her self fit into it.

All the enraptured press encircling Kusama’s interview in an LVMH store literally broke into applause after she finished. Still from NHK/BBC

Beyond Kusama’s often-stated desire that her nets and dots extend to infinity, and that her goal is to cover everything in the universe and achieve self-obliteration, when I re-read Naoki Seki’s 1999 exhibition catalogue essay, all I could see was the Kusama’s foundational yearning for her mannequin to appear in every store window LVMH has:

Kusama talking about marketing her dots during the 2012 LVMH rollout, still from NHK/BBC

To Kusama, making art is more than the simple act of making the work and expressing the artist’s inner life in it. It is a more complex system. The work of art is a site of interaction between the inner self and the outside world. For this reason, the world contained in these works ranges freely from minute things on the cellular level up to the scale of the entire universe. The most important thing about her creative process is that it is aimed at achieving a personal understanding of the relationship between self and work, self and the space where the work is placed, and the mass media that receives the work and, ultimately, her relationship with the society. In establishing this relationship she has used documentary photographs and images that show her together with the work. Only when this documentation is published in the media is it possible for the artist to confirm the position of her self in society. The artist thinks of all the steps in this process as part of her creative work, and the confirmation of the position of the self is part of the ultimate goal of her creation.

Overpainted photo from Self-Obliteration, Kusama’s 1967 film with Jud Yakult

In this creative system, Kusama works energetically with the mass media in order to form a self-image. Such action should be seen as part of the creative process rather than an attempt at publicity. i It also should be noted that when Kusama presents herself actively to the media, she does so in terms of the fundamental esthetic ideas of modernism. As an artist who experienced New York in the sixties, she adopted this esthetic characterized by absolute faith in the sense of vision, emphasis on making a strong impact, and the pursuit of universal qualities and the avoidance of the vernacular.

Naoko Seki, “In Full Bloom: Yayoi Kusama, Years In Japan.” National Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 1999.
Still trying to figure out if this was for one of her video works or for NHK/BBC, but it feels like this 2010-12 footage of Kusama painting on glass is the literal source code for the current LVMH collab

When re-watching Heather Lenz’s 2018 documentary Kusama Infinity, and the 2012 and 2014 NHK/BBC documentaries, I thought of Carolee Schneeman’s attempt to tell Lenz the story of Kusama tracking down the most important man in a gallery opening to make him her patron—and then seeing her on the town with some boring randos who paid her rent for her studio—in the most diplomatic way possible1.

Kusama sitting, I think, in her firefly installation in Bordeaux back in like 2000, overlaid with a quote about how she was accepted, even revered, by the people of Matsumoto, still from NHK/BBC

And then yesterday news broke of LVMH unsuccessfully wooing the Joan Mitchell Foundation with Bernard Arnault’s personal plea for an ad campaign. And I thought of how Kusama, once disowned by her hometown of Matsumoto, exulted about returning as the star of the municipal museum. And I wondered how she would respond to a collab request from the richest man in the world.

1 Carolee Schneeman in Kusama Infinity: “I remember a particular gallery opening where Kusama and I were intensely engaged in the potential development of her future, starting with funds, and she wanted to know, ‘Carolee, is there an important man here in this opening? I have to meet him.’ And she was blatant, and aggressive, and overt, and she was going to find a patron. I would see Kusama at the next opening with a handsome, conventional young man following behind her, who had rented her the apartment, or the equipment, or the materials.” This story sticks with me, partly because Carolee’s clearly uncomfortable retelling the story on the record, but also because of how it fits with Kusama’s own Holly Golightliest possible stories in her autobiography. The white male art world of 1960s and ’70s New York and Europe has a lot to answer for here.