NYBG’s Kusama: Cosmic Nature


Article by Matej Silecky

Photography by Matej Silecky

I’m a huge fan of Japanese arts, culture, and language! There is so much history and so much to learn. There is also no question that Yayoi Kusama, an incredibly prolific contemporary artist, is one of the most well-known recent artists from Japan. Her special exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden was scheduled for 2020 but was delayed a year due to the pandemic.

I was excited to see the exhibit shortly after it opened in April! Don’t miss it – it is at NYBG through the end of October. I’m definitely hoping to go again in the Fall. Take your camera and take the opportunity to photograph her amazing works and whatever is in bloom at NYBG when you go. It's all great practice.

Here are a few of my personal highlights from the exhibit:

Why Kusama at NYBG?

It would take a book and more to provide a full history of Yayoi Kusama, and I am not qualified to do that, but let’s take a broad-brush look at why this exhibit is so special for New York. Kusama was born in Japan in 1929 and focused her art from childhood on the nature around her at her family’s seed nursery. As a young woman, she bravely moved to New York and became a noted part of the New York pop art and avant-garde scenes of the 1960s. Pumpkins, polka dots and infinity rooms appear in much of her work. The concepts derive from her experiences both in nature and some rather traumatic family and personal experiences. Presenting her work surrounded by the natural beauty of the botanical garden, and in the city where she refined her pop art sensibilities, creates a truly special experience that is not to be missed.

5 of My Personal Favorites


I had to split some of my images due to the image size constraints on this platform. Feel free to contact me to view the full images!

5. Starry Pumpkin

Starry Pumpkin is described as an interpretation of Kusama’s first encounter with a pumpkin. Here, it is displayed in NYBG’s Haupt Conservatory with everchanging annual flowers, selected by the NYBG horticulturists to represent the changing seasons. This means that what you see will be different than what I saw in the early Spring, which is part of what makes it so special. Since Kusama’s pumpkins are also so well-known, it also reminds me of her pumpkin on Naoshima Island (直島) which sits at the end of a pier on one of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan that have been developed into a national park for art and architecture that began through the elderly people in the area talking about contemporary art with young tourists. 

4. Flower Obsession

Artworks that involve the viewer in the piece are always interesting to me. They are – and yet are not – what the artist envisioned at inception, yet the artist can not fully control the resulting piece. Flower Obsession is part of Kusama’s series of Obliteration Rooms, where the surfaces of a space are gradually covered with polka-dot stickers by those who visit the space. At NYBG, each visitor walking through the greenhouse is given a flower sticker to place wherever they want in the exhibit. Again, this means that what you see will be different than what I saw in April.

3. Narcissus Garden

Many of the NYBG special exhibits include placements in the lake at the Native Plant Garden, where the water feature adds natural movement and sound to the exhibit. Here, one of Kusama’s early exhibits that has since been displayed worldwide is placed in this unique natural setting. Kusama first displayed this exhibit as an “unauthorized intervention” at the 1966 Venice Biennial by selling the mirrored orbs with a sign saying, “Your Narcissism For Sale.” Here, the orbs move with natural currents and wind, in and around the aquatic vegetation, creating an everchanging reflective palette. 

2. Dancing Pumpkin

Dancing Pumpkin is a huge painted bronze sculpture that takes pride of place in the open area outside the Haupt Conservatory. You definitely won’t miss it! And, it is worth the time to walk underneath and consider the sheer scope of the piece. Still, to me, it bears little resemblance to a pumpkin and much more to a highly intelligent octopus.

1. Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity

I have not included a photograph or video of this exhibit because photography is not permitted inside the exhibit. However, it really is my favorite. Kusama is also well known for her infinity room exhibits, and another one is opening as part of the NYBG special exhibit this summer. This one combines her love of pumpkins with the infinity room, and the changing light levels remind me of fireflies, which also feature prominently in Japanese folklore, representing love and war.

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