Youyou Tu & Yayoi Kusame at 90+
Two women. Artist Yoyoi Kusama and Nobel laureate YouYou Tu. Honored on the occasion of Full Moon on Sunday March 28, 2021 at Dina Cormick and Betsy Oehrle’s inspired and inspiring Full Moon group via Zoom from Durban. Shared by (March sagewoman) Wanda Hennig
YouYou Tu, 90. (Born 30 December 1930.)
Yayoi Kusama, 91. (Born 22 March, 1929.)
Two inspiring woman. Both survivors. Both work obsessed. Two women who have made an indelible mark, one on medical science, the other on art. Both still living. I will trace some parallels of sorts, starting with where they are now. And how they were both, in their own way, linked and their work influenced by to the Vietnam War. I will then go back over their very different lives and journeys.
YouYou Tu is in Beijing, where she has long lived with her husband, a metallurgical engineer. They met when they were classmates in middle school. She retired as Chief Scientist at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (now the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences).
“Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world,” she said when interviewed after accepting the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work she did — starting in 1969 and into the 70s — saved millions of lives.
But before 2011 her significance and name were unknown to the world. To quote: “she was almost completely forgotten by people”.
She could have died forgotten but four years before that, in 2007, two researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland, US, asked their Chinese colleagues during a scientific meeting in Shanghai about the scientist who had discovered artemisinin — (aka sweet wormwood or qinghao in Chinese), used to combat malaria.
No one was able to tell them. Extensive research in official papers – most of which had been stamped ‘secret’ for many years – finally lead them to Youyou Tu, then known — among her colleagues and peers — as “the professor of the three Nos”:
No post-graduate degree,
No membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences,
and No research experience outside China.
The two American researchers published their findings in the journal Cell in 2011. This led to her being awarded the Nobel prize in 2015.
Yayoi Kusama has lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo for the past 40 years. During most of this time she has worked on her art at her studio across the street from the hospital.
Kusama has long been open about her mental health issues and said that her art is therapeutic: her way to express and deal with them. I will tell you more about her earlier life, but for now, to explain: she went to New York from Japan at age 27.
Then at a point, disappeared from the New York art scene and her name was written out of art history. While in New York, she was a prominent, controversial, colorful figure — who — being a woman, and Japanese, not white, was not given the recognition alongside Andy Warhol and others of his pop art genre that it is now acknowledged she might otherwise have received.
Fast-forward to the age of the selfie. While she doesn’t give interviews or travel, Yayoi Kusama has became an art-world phenomenon. In 2017, a 50-year retrospective of her work opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The selfies referred to are usually other people taking selfies featuring her work.
To illustrate her transition in terms of fame and fortune, back in the early 60s she painted a series of nets inspired by ocean waves and made from a repetitive singular gesture showing little loops, like interlocking scales. One of these canvases sold in 2014 for $7.1m, a record for a living female artist. By comparison, one was sold in 1962, in New York, for $75.
Read this great Guardian article on Kusama used as a resource for the presentation.
YouYou Tu. Vietnam War.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Mihn, the leader of North Vietnam (which was at war against South Vietnam and the United States), asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for help in developing a malaria treatment for his soldiers trooping down the Ho Chi Minh trail, where a majority came down with a form of malaria which is resistant to chloroquine.
Because malaria was also a major cause of death in China’s southern provinces, including Guangdong, Zhou Enlai convinced Mao Zedong — Chairman Mao — Enlai’s boss, I guess one could call him, to set up a secret drug discovery project named Project 523 (named after its starting date, 23 May 1967). In early 1969, Youyou Tu was appointed head of the project 523 research group at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where she was working.
Tu was initially sent to Hainan where she studied patients who had been infected with the malaria. By then scientists worldwide had screened over 240,000 compounds looking for a “cure” for this mosquito-born disease — without success. In 1969, Tu, then 39 years old, had an idea of screening traditional Chinese herbs.
Yayoi Kusama. Vietnam War.
In the 1960s, living in New York and a prominent figure in the art scene there at the time, she position herself as a kind of high priestess of flower power, staging “Body Festivals” and “Anatomic Explosion happenings” in which she painted naked partygoers with polka dots.
“She asked if she could paint me. I didn’t realize she meant literally point my naked body,” to quote a dancer who participated in the happenings at that time.
Yayoi Kusama took these happenings to sites around New York – opposite the New York Stock Exchange, Central Park, on the steps of the Statue of Liberty – creating nude protests against the election of Richard Nixon and protests against the Vietnam Warm. In one protest, she wrote an open letter to Richard Nixon offering to have sex with him if he would stop the Vietnam war.
YouYou Tu. Roots. Background.
One of my favourite stories about Youyou Tu is linked to her name. Her first name, she said when interviewed in 2011, Youyou, was given to her by her father, who adapted it from a sentence that translated as “deer (the animals) bleat ‘youyou’ while they are eating the wild hao (as in qinghao, the Chinese name for artemisia: what she discovered was the essential ingredient that would work for malaria). She said: “How this links my whole life with qinghao will probably remain an interesting coincidence forever.”
I won’t name her Chinese schools but she was obviously bright and from a family that valued education.
A tuberculosis infection interrupted her high-school education. This inspired her to go into medical research. As we said, she met the man who would become her husband during middle school.
From 1951 to 1955, she attended Peking University Medical School. In 1955, she graduated from the university’s School of Pharmacy. She then continued her studies and research (training for two-and-a-half years) in Chinese herbal medicine (traditional Chinese medicine) at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.
Tu carried on her malaria work in the 1960s and 70s during China’s Cultural Revolution when scientists were denigrated as one of society’s nine black categories — aka the Stinking Old Ninth — according to Maoist theory. During the Cultural Revolution the “Nine Black Categories” were: landlords, rich farmers, anti-revolutionaries (those who did not agree with them), bad influences, right-wingers, traitors, spies, capitalist roaders and (ninth) intellectuals. In other words, anyone opposed to Mao’s point of view or anyone who might think for her or himself. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were often displaced, imprisoned and tortured. In fact, when Youyou Tu joined the malaria project in 1969, her husband was a detainee in a labour camp.
Because he was in prison, she had to leave her one-year-old daughter with her parents and put her four-year-old in a nursery to start her work.
It would be three years before she saw her children again and neither of them recognised her. But she had seen many young children in the last stages of malaria who died very quickly – an experience she could never forget.
“The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” she said later.
Aware that previous research to find a cure had failed, Youyou Tu turned to Chinese medical texts from the Zhou, Qing, and Han Dynasties to find a traditional cure for malaria, ultimately extracting a compound – artemisinin – that has saved millions of lives. She led her team to take this unique approach: going back to classical Chinese herbal medicine books. She compiled more than six hundred herbal medicine prescriptions in her notebook and led her team in testing many in animal studies.
Among these herbs, qinghao stood out because it was mentioned as a treatment for malaria’s hallmark symptom (intermittent fever) in a 1,600-year-old Chinese medicine book. In order to develop an effective drug, the active ingredient of Qinghao must be extracted from the plant.
However, the team’s extraction attempt failed, so Youyou decided to return to the classics again.
Inspired by the same ancient book, she finally found a way to use a low-temperature method to make the active extract and named it “Qinghaosu”.
Having shown that Qinghao was effective to treat malaria in mice and monkeys, human trials started. She volunteered to be the first human subject. Two of her colleagues followed her. The safety established, they started clinical trials.
It turned out that Qinghaosu was safe, and all the patients in the trial recovered. Eventually, Qinghaosu became the first-line treatment for malaria recommended by the World Health Organization, saving millions of lives in south Asia, Africa, and America.
She is the first mainland Chinese scientist to have received a Nobel Prize in a scientific category and the first Chinese woman to receive a Nobel prize.
Yayoi Kusama. Roots. Background.
Yayoi Kusama was born into a wealthy family in rural Japan that managed extensive plant nurseries, growing varieties of violets and peonies and zinnias to sell all over the country. From a very young age she would carry her sketchbook down to the seed-harvesting grounds and sit among the flowers until, as in a fairytale, one day she experienced the flowers crowding in and talking to her. “I had thought that only humans could speak so I was surprised the violets were using words. I was so terrified my legs began shaking,” she wrote later.
This was the first of a series of disturbing hallucinations – she calls them depersonalisations – that haunted her childhood.
It has been suggested these episodes were connected to issues in her home life. She grew up in a deeply unhappy family. Her father was a philanderer and her mother sent Kusama to spy on him with his mistresses. When she reported back, she recalls in her autobiography, “my mother would vent all her rage on me”.
Her mother also tried to stop Kusama from painting tearing canvases from her hands and destroying them, insisting that she study etiquette in order to make a good arranged marriage.
The expectations of the time for a young woman was an arranged marriage, kids. Kusama kept on drawing. It was her way of making sense of her hallucinations: flowers from the tablecloth that enveloped her and chased her upstairs; sudden bursts of radiance in the sky. “Whenever things like this happened I would hurry back home and draw what I had seen in my sketchbook… recording them helped to ease the shock and fear of the episodes,” she recalls.
Many of the motifs that have become her trademarks were rooted in this practice. The first pumpkin Kusama saw was with her grandfather. When she went to pick it, it began speaking to her. It was the size of a man’s head. She painted the pumpkin and won a prize for it, her first, aged 11. Eighty years on, her largest silver pumpkin sculptures sell for $500,000.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Kusama was 13, she was conscripted to work in a factory that produced fabrics for parachutes. In the evening, she painted intricate flowers over and over.
That second chapter of Kusama’s journey began when she first encountered the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a bookshop in Matsumoto, her home town. By then she had trained at the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts in a traditional Japanese painting style called nihonga, an exacting style based on traditions over a thousand years old. But she was inspired by American abstract expressionism.
I quote: Her work is based in conceptual art and shows some attributes of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art and abstract expressionism — infused with autobiographical, psychological and sexual content. She has been acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan.
She found O’Keeffe’s address in New Mexico and wrote to her for advice about how she could make her way in the New York art world, sending some of her own intricate watercolours of surreal vegetal forms and exploding seed pods. O’Keeffe replied, puzzled at first why anyone, let alone a young woman in rural Japan, might want to do such a thing, but the curiosity developed over several years to a kind of mentorship. “In this country an artist has a hard time making a living,” O’Keeffe replied. “You will just have to find your way as best you can.”
Kusama left Japan at the age of 27 for the United States. She has stated that she began to consider Japanese society “too small, too servile, too feudalistic, and too scornful of women”. She arrived in New York in 1958 with a few hundred dollars sewn into the lining of her dresses, along with 60 silk kimonos and some drawings. Her plan was to survive by selling one or the other.
While an outsider in a sense, given her gender and race, she became an integral part of the New York art scene of the time.
Interestingly I think, when her work was often overtly sexual in nature with phallic symbols and penises defining a lot of it, she later wrote: “I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust toward sex. My fear was of the hide-in-the-closet-trembling variety. I was taught sex was dirty, shameful, something to be hidden. Complicating things even more was all the talk about ‘good families’ and ‘arranged marriage’ and the absolute opposition to romantic love… Also, I happened to witness the sex act when I was a toddler and the fear that entered through my eye had ballooned inside me.”
Kusama found something like her ideal man in Joseph Cornell, pioneer of assemblage art, collector, pastry-lover, experimental film-maker, balletomane — reclusive genius (in many ways introvert misfit) who “roved freely through the fields of the mind while inhabiting a personal life of extraordinarily narrow limits”. He is interesting to look up and read about. He never married or moved out of his mother’s house in Queens and rarely voyaged further than a subway ride into Manhattan, despite being besotted with the idea of foreign travel and particularly with France. He was in his 50s and she in her early 30s when Cornell became obsessed with Kusama, sending her a dozen poems a day, never hanging up from a phone call so he was there when she picked it up to dial.
This was her only known romantic relationship, though “he didn’t like sex, and I didn’t like sex so we didn’t have sex”, she said. One time she was at Cornell’s house and they were sitting on the lawn. Cornell’s mother appeared, struggling up the garden with a large bucket of water. She tipped the contents over them, at which Cornell clung to his mother’s skirt and pleaded with her: “Mother! I’m sorry! Forgive me, but this person is my lover, please do not do such outrageous things.”
While this was her private side, publicly, as we’ve seen, when the summer of love arrived, Kusama sought to position herself as a kind of high priestess of flower power, staging her “Body Festivals” and “Anatomic Explosion happenings”.
On 25 November 1968 she staged – half a century ahead of its time – New York’s first “homosexual wedding”, for which she had created a “wedding dress for two”. She sold polka dot fashion designs from a boutique, with holes to reveal breasts and buttocks, which cemented her notoriety not only in America but also in her native – and deeply conservative – Japan. She was the scandalous exile. Media interest in her work had shifted from serious critical attention to exposés in the tabloids where her name became synonymous with skin painting and orgies.
As the 70s backlash against 60s excesses began, and having become something of an outcast in New York, Kusama returned to Japan.
She was deeply affected by the death of Joseph Cornell in 1972, and by her father two years later. She rented an apartment and began to work on an elegy to Cornell in surreal collages. The hallucinations and panic attacks of her adolescence returned with full force, however, and she was hospitalised several times. In March 1977 she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital.
For some artists this might have been the end of things, but for Kusama it represented a new start. She found a way to manage her mania, and direct it toward her creativity. The hospital offered art therapy courses. She signed up, and never left.
Kusama does not do interviews, but Tim Adams who wrote about her in The Guardian said: I was invited to send her three questions about her curious life by email. This businesslike exchange went as follows:
1) “Was the enormous recognition you have received relatively late in your career a surprise to you? Did you ever lose faith in it happening?”
“Long ago,” Kusama wrote back, “I decided that all I could do was express my thoughts through my art and that I would continue to do this until I died, even if no one was ever to see my work. Today, I never forget that my artworks have moved millions of people all around the world.”
2) What have been the advantages for you of living in a psychiatric hospital? How has it informed your practice as an artist?
“It made it possible for me to continue to make art every day, and this has saved my life.” (To quote the writer of the article: She wanted to spend her time making her art – and here was a situation where she didn’t have to worry about washing her sheets or cleaning the bathroom or cooking. It is not a bad arrangement. If you look at the history of art, a lot of successful men have had wives or servants do that for them also.”
3) How do you habitually begin your days in the studio? And how do you end them?
“I have been painting, drawing and writing from morning until night every day since I was a child. When I arrive at my studio in the morning, I put on my work clothes and start to paint straight away, and I work right up until dinner time. I don’t rest. I am an insomniac. Even now, if an idea comes to me in the middle of the night, I pick up my sketchbook and draw.”
So, Kusama sleeps at the hospital each night and works in her studio across the road six days a week. She eats sushi from the local supermarket. She makes her own clothes. She apparently has little interest in the wealth that has come to her late in life.
She has a small team of assistants in her studio, and gallerists who look after her interests in New York, Tokyo and London. She does mainly installations that get sent out by her team. She was never taken up by the art establishment like her male contemporaries.
“She was doubly an outsider – a woman, and a Japanese woman. She just wasn’t recognised in the way the white male artists were. In retrospect it is clear she was a very important figure both in minimalism and in pop art. Her work provided a link between the two, which was unique.”