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The Metaverse According to Yayoi Kusama

The sheeples of metaverse, web3 and all that have lost their collective minds about AI this year and it’s only February! Rather than do what everyone else is doing, I wanted to take a close look at the art of fashion through the eyes of AI. Or more importantly, what can Yayoi Kusama teach us about lasting creativity in a world of transient crap?

(Image credit: Getty)
(Image credit: Getty)

Doing the Polka

How does an artist move? Is it a graceful process of medium like a swan or is it fleeting like a butterfly tasting the sweetness of flowers and travelling through? Yayoi Kusama, through a lifelong connection from 'rijin'sho', or depersonalisation syndrome, was able to weave together the traditional rulesets of Japanese painting but used the hallucinatory effect of rijin’sho by developing a system of metaphor through self-imposed oppression towards the fluidity of freedom. She compared her unique polka dot style of art as the sun “which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Born in 1929, Yayoi Kusama travelled through France from Tokyo before landing in the US at a time when the avant-garde movement, in New York at least, was on the rise again. Taking her cue from Georgia O’Keeffe and Claes Oldenburg (and following a couple of incidents involving Claes and Warhol) Yayoi Kusama focused secretly on her metaverse. The year is 1963.

The Mirrorverse

Mise en abyme is an effect where a copy of an image is formally placed onto an identical image to create an infinite sense of a story inside a story, as opposed to facsimile. We want to know why—and we want to know how the story exists on multiple levels or multiverses, let’s call them metaverses. It is persistent. So if we are to take the idea into our 2023 philosophy of the metaverse, not only does mise en abyme tick the boxes, but Yayoi Kusama’s Mirror/Infinity dating back to the early/mid-60s is playing with our spatial awareness. She is giving us a platform to explore an openness or a transparency of vision a little like web3, she is providing us with the tools to discover—in this case, it’s our eyes.

Mirrored glass, like a monitor, gives way to “complex infinity mirror installations, purpose-built rooms lined with mirrored glass contain scores of neon-colored balls, hanging at various heights above the viewer.” Are we in it or experiencing it? This “illusion of a never-ending space” is distracting and comforting at the same time. Like playing Journey but living in Flower, or moving through Decentraland but tending to your space in Farmer’s World. It’s a shared experience between the artist, you and those who stand beside you in the Mirror/Infinity room.

But the metaverse has to live, and that’s why the philosophy of the metaverse is so integral but almost ephemeral to the growth of connection in this space. The metaverse is social, it has to be, it needs people on it to thrive. Yayoi Kusama’s work stands alone, it is infinite and it exists whether you are there or not, some might say a little like the metaverse; that persistence drives the experience, it’s hooky, mostly because it’s real. Are NPCs rolling burritos in the Chipotle metaverse? Nope, or perhaps they are but we don’t care enough to find out.

Me, as armchair art critic, rather than with a deep Brian Sewell-esque perspective, would like to hypothesise that it’s imagination that sustains both Yayoi Kusama’s work, and that of the metaverse. It’s an open communication, mmm, open communication. Like, ChatGPT? Well I don’t see anything wrong with applying that to the metaverse, but Yayoi Kusama’s work runs even deeper than that, because it’s also sustaining her, from her mental health to the commoditisation of her work (which got her into a lot of trouble at the Biennale).


Yayoi Kusama’s work really became prolific when the inside of her vision came out. From the Matsumoto City Museum of Art to Harrods, Yayoi Kusama went mainstream long before I found her. She established her fashion line as far back as 1968 and her dots earned her the legendary Kusama corner in Bloomingdales. But she wasn’t just into dots or spots, but phalli and holes too—paging Rei Kawakubo. But it is her unique relationship with Marc Jacobs which brings us to today. Like the amount of products and works she had produced over 50 plus years, each dot represents something deeper, perhaps a connection to her mental health, or even her prolific creations. When they first collaborated in 2012 through Louis Vuitton where he was creative director at the time: it was fleeting yet graceful, something of a peppering against the depth of branding (Louis Vuitton) through the element of signature (Yayoi Kusama). It was a success, some say largely because of the relationship between Jacobs and Yayoi Kusama. An exhibition of her work was supported by LV at The Whitney, heralding this new age of collabs and drops that we love so much today.

The Oku Theory determines the sense of inwardness that we feel and is unique to Japan because of the relevance of siloed industries in that country through village rice fields. In short, the focus of the cottage industry is to support your locale. For me, the relationship that Yayoi Kusama has to everything feels that it has its roots firmly in oku. Her multiportfolio is the essence of inward creation and sustainable development. She is an automaton where every piece of work is both unique yet derivative to her original style. She is a phrase in Mid-Journey or Dall-E isn’t she? But her consistency seems somehow deeper than the dearth of crap that permeates this new AI culture where everyone simply jizzes at the idea of a computer doing all the work.

The Brompton Road Robot

I spent a week in London: meeting, experiencing and exploring, no, indulging myself in the things that I adore. Video games and the people who make them, the best ramen outside of Nagoya and an incredible exhibition at the V&A. Something that really pissed me off deeply was how suddenly certain influential speakers are desperate for you to know about the importance of AI and its impact on our daily lives, when I had been lecturing on the benefits of machine learning and generative design for fashion, luxury, video games and back in 2020. No one cared. No one would read about it or learn about it. The games industry didn’t want it (except for these guys and I’m very grateful to them.) I had to fight to get an article in MCV/Develop about it. It was a depressing time to be someone creating in this space and not being understood.

I walked down a wet Brompton Road last Friday, I’m not much of a fan of Harrods I guess because I’m a Brit living outside of the UK now, it was always the place to aspire to, but that’s just not me. Besides, I'm more of a Fenwick’s of Bond Street girl, have you heard my Brigitte Neilsen story? Ask me about it the next time we meet.

Yayoi Kusama, a woman of small stature and at 93 years old, loomed over me like something I had only ever seen in a film or somewhere like the Flying Trunk in Copenhagen. My heart ached. It was beautiful. She leant into the building, standing some 15 metres tall and painted her dots to “[...] fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” she wrote this in her autobiography Infinity Net. “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.” But here on Brompton Road she was free. She was creating something meta and outward, the opposite of oku. As I walked across the street level windows, all artificially lit, I saw her water digital flowers, they gave her joy and like her installations we felt her joy through the transference of infinite mirrors. I was looking into her metaverse and it filled me with so much euphoria.

I had one last meeting with her that I needed to experience, it was her. Or, at least, her as an automaton. Carefully crafted like a physical metahuman, we were separated by glass, and she was looking at me, her wig occasionally swinging against the 8hz pulse of the robotic servos and involuntary movements as she painted her dots on the glass. I looked at her, and she at me. Her uncanny valley was absent for this moment as I felt her closeness. I love robots, everyone knows that; but the careful detail executed at the point of our meeting felt as Yayoi Kusama as anything else she’d ever done.

This time, with Louis Vuitton again but under Nicolas Ghesquière we feel a little more of the streetwear influence than in the previous collab with Marc Jacobs and yet this spirit of Virgil Abloh could have been as easily created using AI, no? The current mantel for using AI to design looks and creations is lame and limited and this particular collection simply highlights the importance of using the artist herself Yayoi Kusama as the tools for creation rather than a database of terms.

My time in London gave me a unique outlook into the world of artistic inference (AI?) that made me feel well and truly inside and outside of all the experiences I consumed. Beyond her reign in this artistic space, I feel as though this is eternally unfinished business, she has built a platform, a metaverse, an infinity mirror for us to perpetually admire Yayoi Kusama’s aesthetic.


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