Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration is a 1967 experimental film. If boxing paint onto canvas defines the work of fellow Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara’s, Yayoi Kusama’s art leitmotif is the polka dot. The artist uses polka dots to cover and conceal people, animals, the environment, and everything around. It is a metaphor of giving up identity, abolishing uniqueness, and becoming one with the universe–or “self-obliteration.” Kusama’s idea is similar to the Buddhist striving for ego death, the ability to let go of an ego and an identity.
Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration is a dreamy film reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s experimental Stuff with its psychedelic atmosphere and non-narrative structure. With editing and cinematography by Jud Yalkut, one of Self-Obliteration’s main cinematic elements is its extensive use of dissolves, which artistically facilitate the concept of obliteration or dissolving of the self. Lars von Trier managed to capture the essence of the human condition in a single dissolve in Nymphomaniac, while in La Jetee, Chris Marker used dissolves of still photographs to create the illusion of movement and time lapse.
Through dissolves, Self-Obliteration depicts the merging of flesh and identities into one whole with no discernible individual units. To enhance the dream-like atmosphere, the film uses fast- and slow-motion sequences, often free-moving camera, zoom-ins and -outs. The dim light often makes it hard to tell the difference between people, objects, and the environment. They all appear part of the same polka dot pattern. The typography for the credits and the title of the film is pale and intentionally hard to read. Just like the objects in the film, it blends with the background.
In an interview, Yayoi Kusama said her interest in dots comes from their symbolism.
Dots are symbols of the world, the cosmos. The Earth is a dot, the moon, the sun, the stars are all made up of dots. You and me, we are dots.
Speaking of the cosmos and dots, Yayoi Kusama’s dots are similar in idea and message to the Pale Blue Dot, the NASA picture of Planet Earth from 3.7 billion miles away, in which our gargantuan planet appears as nothing more than a pale blue dot. Both NASA’s and Kusama’s dots seem to hold statements against the self-importance of modern humans. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan said about the Pale Blue Dot:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.
In Yayoi Kusama’s universe, the importance of personality is abolished. As the artist covers a horse, a cat, a lake, a tree, and herself with dots, they all fuse into one greater whole where differences are neglected.
Towards the end of the movie, the naked bodies superimpose each other and no individuals can be made out. Their anonymous bodies are covered with paint and polka dots and blend with the surroundings. Thus, Yayoi Kusama’s act of physical concealing with dots may be a metaphoric revelation about the minutiae of individuality and personality.