Polka-Dots, Repulsive Holes, and the Political Aesthetics of Benthic "Life" Forms in Yayoi Kusama and Kim Hyesoon

by on Jan.10, 2013



When is a dot a hole and when is a hole a dot? What can a dot do, what can a hole do?  When does a polka dot (most cheerful and ludicrous of marks) become a hole? Is a hole a zero, or does it emit? Maybe a  hole becomes a dot when it begins to pulse, to emit, when it begins, even, to repel:


Goodness, I didn’t know there were such repulsive holes

As Kim Hyesoon’s landmark poem, “Manhole Humanity”, comes into English in the hands of Don Mee Choi, it begins to pulse each time the word ‘hole’ is repeated, hundreds of times across the many pages of the poem. Not only is the word ‘hole’ repeated, but it makes a triply proliferant glyph for itself, the interior ‘o’ that signals from the middle of “hole”, the capital ‘O’ that announces each new section of the poem, which further doubles itself in the ‘o’ shape or ‘hole’ the human mouth must make to mouth this syllable. Oxymoronically, however, this pulsing hole announces and reproduces absence, a zero, a hole. In this way the hole begins to pulse or beat—to be ‘repulsive”—the emptiness of the “O” begins sending out beats—that which is ‘repulsive’ sends out a counterpressure, a counter pulse. Perhaps a negative pulse. Perhaps an oxymoronically empty-full pulse. It beats back, and it beats—an unwholesome life force of the low and the dead beating back to life.

The field of holes begins to beat. The field of holes begins to pulse. To repulse. To repel.

Hair sprouts up inside the holes and ripples like water plants.

Holes are neatneatly piled a steaming stomach.

The wet and most poisonous snakes in the world pant.

Fill us up! fill us up with the outside!

Delicious outside!

Delicious outside!

When hair whines like the fingers that reach out towards the refugee-aid bread truck someone picks up a brass instrument and wails at the sky praising the blueness.

Holes of the world, open up your lids and howl! 


The poet Kim Hyesoon( Korean, b.1955) and the artist Yayoi Kusama (Japanese,b. 1929)  are separated by a generation, by typical medium, and by nationality but united it seems to me in their experience of a militarized/occupied/war-defined childhood and their attempt to configure an art-language-system for a kind of modified, oxymoronic survival which strafes stasis and oppressive systems with a counter- or sub-system of dots and holes.


There is a rumor that those holes carry a drug-resistant strain of blood-poisoning virus.

Like viruses, bacteria, the prolapse inside of nothing, the dots and holes of Kim and Kusama, like so many infinitesimal fuses, erupt from benthic space, from the bottom, from subways, from the sewer system of the body, in Kim Hyesoon, and from a war-time riverbed, in Kusama.  In the chapter, “Taking my Stand with a Single Polka Dot’ in her autobiography Infinity Net, Kusama writes (through Ralph McCarthy’s translation):


One single polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything—myself, others, the entire universe—would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots. White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness.


Kim Hyesoon, in her essay “In the Oxymoronic World”,  attempts to conceive of “The ether of a poem, the emptiness, the poesy” in terms of a ‘moving dot’:


The ether of a poem, the emptiness, the poesy exists inside the movement of language. The trace of the movement can only be drawn as a formless form, like the way our brain activities reveal themselves as waves, the way electric currents flow between you and me. I’ll call such wave motion the ‘moving dot’.


The moving dot can be extinguished in an instant, yet it contains all information, even eternity. Try placing a dot on the undulating waves. The moment I extend my arm, the dot is already gone.


Kim’s profoundly oxymoronic ‘moving dot’ can negotiate the infinite and yet also be easily extinguished; in this regard it is an infinitely vulnerable concept that can somehow sustain the largest of concepts—infinity, eternity, life, death. It moves in the field and it is also the field. In this sense it is compatible, maybe bio-identical with Kusama’s polka dot which is continually beset by and exceeding the ‘nets’ which would circumscribe it (and are in fact its inversion, just as for Kim, the hole is the inversion of the dot; oxymoronically, the hole is the trace of the dot, just as the dot is the trace of thought, just as Kusama’s net is made of holes, which is to say, of nothing.)

In considering the oxymoronic tenacity and vulnerability of the dot and the hole, we are aided if we think in terms of the genesis of Kim and Kusama’s own artistic consciousnesses in a total atmosphere of militarism, occupation, and wartime.  Kusama provides this description in her autobiography. She describes her work and its nativity thusly:

The endlessly repetitive rhythm and the monochrome surface , which cannot be defined by established, conventional structure or methodology, present an attempt at a new painting based on a different ‘light’. Moreover, these pictures have totally abandoned a fixed focal point of center. I originated this concept myself, and it had been prominent in my work for more than ten years.

Deep in the mountains of Nagano, working with letter-size sheets of white paper, I had found my own unique method of expression: ink paintings featuring accumulations of tiny dots and pen drawings of endless and unbroken chains of graded cellular forms or peculiar structures that resembled magnified sections of plant stalks. During the dark days of the war, the scenery of the river bed behind our house, where I spend much of my disconsolate childhood, became the miraculous source of a vision: the hundreds of millions of white pebbles, each individually verifiable, really ‘existed’ there, drenched in the midsummer sun.


In the first paragraph above, Kusama concisely describes the ‘difference’ of her work, its “different ‘light’”  “which cannot be defined by established, conventional structure of methodology” and which, as she repeatedly stresses, has “totally abandoned a fixed focal point or center.” It is interesting to think that the strategy of the marginal or abandoned with its distance and its difference is here re-employed by Kusama’s semi-independent dots and pictures as a strategy of assertion. In the second paragraph, the child-Kusama’s double removal ‘deep in the mountains of Nagano’ and “during  the dark days of the war”  leads her to a biological strategy of “cellular forms” and “sections of plant stalks”; her “miraculous source of vision” is literally benthic; if Kim Hyesoon’s holes are full of rats and located underground, inside the body, and in ‘subways’, Kusama’s dots derive from the bottom of a streambed. Her dots are the optic trace of “hundreds of millions of white pebbles” in a remote river bed,  themselves the subject of an optical ‘drenching’, the drenching of sunshine and the drenching of vision itself.


If Kusama’s youthful miraculous vision was already drenched with dots (and vice versa), Kim Hyesoon’s was rent with holes, holes which would, in her later artistic work, animate and begin to pulse, to repulse. This phenomenon is perhaps best evoked in Kim’s translator’s Don Mee Choi’s note which prefaces All the Garbage of the World, Unite:


A while back, I submitted a short poem by Kim Hyesoon called ‘A Hole’ to a U. S. literary journal. The editors were interested in publishing it, but they asked if I could change the word ‘hole,’ which recurs throughout the poem, to something else because it had negative connotations in this culture. […] To change “hole” to something else would mean changing the world “A Hole” came from. During the Korean War (1950-53), about 250,000 pounds of napalm per day were dropped by the United States forces. Countless mountains, hills, rice fields, and houses were turned into holes. Four million perished, leaving more holes. It’s a place that is positively holey. Kim Hyesoon’s hole poem comes from there, and so do I.


In the oxymoronic world of military occupation and ‘police action’, in the dark days of the war, holes may be ‘nothing’ but they aren’t empty. Holes are full of limbs, guts, hair, rat bones, drugs, consumer products, vomit, other holes. In this sense they configure an unacceptable life force of “negative connotations”. They repulse. I will end this thought-in-progress by making myself a hole for the pulsing repetitions of this hole. As Kim Hyesoon’s ‘short’ poem, “A Hole”, progresses, the hole is constantly inverting, filling, draining, emptying itself out, playing the role of occupying soldier, prostitute, wife, the nation, the body, the erased self, and, in Don Mee Choi’s excellently knit sonic invention, “A fool, like a hell that keeps on walking” (the sonic elements of ‘hole’ here distributed across ‘fool’ and ‘hell’ and submerged to rise again as the ‘l’ in ‘walking’), ie, existence itself:




A hole walked in just as I was wiping off my makeup

I looked at the hole as I sat on the sofa and took off my stockings

The hole was about one meter and sixty centimeters wide

I hear that the hole makes good steamed rice

and on some days babies pop out from it

However the hole isn’t certain whether someone is spitting into it or not and even when a black cloud sits leaning against its thighs for decades

it doesn’t care

A fool, like a hell that keeps on walking

I poured left-over seaweed soup into the hole

Really the hole is nothing an idiot but it’s deep

When I took out my wisdom tooth a one-meter-and-sixty-centimeters-wide hole

opened up

However the problem is that a hole falls into the hole endlessly whenever it can

Where’s the hole’s end?

The hole remains a hole ever if the water from all the ponds of the world is poured into it

Do people know that the hole puts on makeup? That it cries when it is hit by lightning?

That a red tongue that detests the hole hides inside the hole’s mouth and kneads an ohohoh sound?

The hole intensifies when it stays in bed too long

In other words the hole becomes deeper and deeper

When I get up in the morning I see a mark on my pillow

from the tears of the hole


1 comment for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    I think Sulfur magazine, years ago, was one of the first places in the U.S. to feature and discuss Kusama’s work. The issue’s somewhere at home, but as I recall there’s an essay on her (maybe by John Yau, who did a number of art essays for the journal?) and a whole portfolio of photos. Sulfur was one of the great journals for numerous reasons, and not least for the visual artists it highlighted, many of them women artists who hadn’t yet come to the prominence they deserved: Cecilia Vicuna and Ana Mendieta, for example.