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The Great Kusama Drag Show | Avigail Erenkrantz


What to wear?

It wasn’t even two weeks after our first date that you proposed we go together to see Kusama’s exhibition. It was just two days after it opened at the Tel Aviv Museum, and thousands of colorful dots flooded the Instagram accounts of influencers and press card holders. On the museum’s website, tickets were sold out through the end of December, but one desperate post by you on Facebook did the trick, and you got us a pair of tickets for a month later. In a show of trust for such a new relationship, you booked the tickets and started planning what we’re going to wear.

Photo credit: Shirley Cohen

The exhibition by Yayoi Kusama – the world’s most successful contemporary plastic artist – is more than a fascinating art event that gives the Israeli viewer a glimpse into the original works of an internationally renowned artist. Kusama’s exhibition is, in essence, a warm (or dare I say, hot) cultural phenomenon, pulling into the museal ivory tower ‏a variety of people of different ages, styles and classes. A myriad of critiques published in just about all media outlets tried analyzing the reasons behind this “Kusumania,” and, of course, partake in the marketing bonanza that came with it.

We were mostly occupied with how well the clothes we were going to wear compliment the orange pumpkins, the red field of phalluses and the sparkly infinity rooms in the photos we would put on Facebook. It would be easy to mistake the works hung on the museum's walls for Kusama’s art. But in fact, the infinite dots and colors are the setting for the real creation: “The Great Kusama Drag Show,” where she – and us, too – reveal how arbitrary boundaries and limits are, challenging the dichotomous view of gender, sexuality, sanity and race.

Who are you, Yayoi Kusama?

The main character in “The Great Kusama Drag Show” is Yayoi Kusama herself. In recent years, Kusama has shaped a unique persona, both in terms of appearance and behavior and in terms of how she presents her works. In all of her interviews, she is seen with her signature red bob wig, traditional Japanese-style clothes with prints echoing her words, and bright red lipstick, speaking only Japanese.

In an essay about Kusama’s persona, researcher Soojin Lee argues it is a work of art all in itself, and even more so: The persona Kusama so carefully cultivates is, in fact, the main artwork, and all the rest of the experiences, images and objects associated with her are only bi-products of her. Kusama is primarily a performance artist, only unlike other performance artists who lost their public persona at the end of the show, it seems as though Kusama’s blends perfectly with the obsessive art of dots.

Between two large halls in the exhibition, which spreads over half of the Tel Aviv Museum, we came across a wall with photos from performance pieces Kusama created in 1906s New York’s public space. Men, women, and one long-haired Kusama in clothes uncommitted to any one gender or completely naked, all decorated with dots in what looks like a surreal homoerotic orgy. Next to those, in a quiet corner next to a fire extinguisher, there was a window with pornographic fanzines Kusama produced at around the same time. This wall caught our attention, and not just because of the photo where Kusama is seen kissing a display mannequin’s breasts. It caught our attention because it had a moment of true uncovering – not just physically, but a moment in which Kusama took off for us the persona she put on once she got on that dotted drag stage she had created for herself.

Red pantyhose

Just before we left home you were still trying to decide what to wear, and whether going for the red pantyhose would be too daring. I ended up wearing a buttoned shirt with dots, a wool sweater vest and a red bow tie. When we got to the exhibition we quickly realized we were not the only ones dressed up for the occasion. Kusama’s dotted drag stage wasn't created for her persona alone, but for all of our personas too. The colorful and dotted backgrounds did not just swallow visitors into infinity, but also served as an incredibly kitsch background for thousands of drag and performance moments brought to life in the space around us: Smiling men took photos surrounded by soft, dotted phalluses, and giggling girls took photos in the arms of the octopus, erotically erupting from the floor of the museum in the installation “A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe.”

Photo credit: Shirley Cohen

According to renowned gender researcher Judith Butler, drag exposes the arbitrariness of gender norms and the way in which gender is an act of “imitation for which there is no original.” Much like the webs of infinity Kusama draws obsessively, drag shows are a parodic performative space, facilitating the undermining and reclaiming of gender and identity constructs. Drag lets ridicule what is considered feminine or masculine while allowing the performers to explore their identity and reshape it.

On the one hand, from a quick look at the long queues in the exhibition space, it seems Kusama is giving the crowds a fun photo shoot location, like those boards at tourist attractions where you can shove your head in and take a photo pretending to be somebody else. On the other hand, the entertainment aspect of it doesn’t take away from the subversive and revolutionary one – just like drag shows never cease to turn worlds upside down and blur the lines, even as they are an entertaining attraction at a bachelorette party or social events at work. For me, Kusama’s exhibition was the perfect setting, inclusive and fitting for a hot lesbian date under my non-binary appearance. Kusama’s art expands and shakes the limits of the museum and of thought, letting my gender and sex performance exist in the mainstream, white and sterile space of the Tel Aviv Museum. Even though the exhibition is set in the very heart of the mainstream, being different didn’t feel like it meant staying on the sidelines, but the opposite – the exhibition was a celebration of being different, inviting one and all to join the party. I felt like I was both the viewer and the show, and that there’s room for both ridiculing and exploring all at the same time.

Kusama’s magic lies, in part, in the way her art can be claimed: When we take a photo with her pumpkins, the theatrical stage she created becomes for a moment our stage. The boundaries she miraculously managed to blur, blur our own social and cultural boundaries. Kusama invites us to play in her playrooms and lets the infinity mirrors make our face the main character in the show.

Photo credit: Avigail Erenkrantz

Avigail Erenkrantz

34, multidisciplinary artist, writer, and creator. Queer lesbian academic and mother of three. Feminist activist and co-founder of the PedArt group from feminist artists in the Israeli art world. Deals with gender, relationships, domestic violence, estrangement, immigration, and motherhood.


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