The Uncanny Valley of Louis Vuitton’s Yayoi Kusama Collection

Posted inDesign Criticism

A few weeks ago, the renewed collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton was unavoidable. While I was making my rounds on TikTok, I encountered dozens of viral videos of onlookers crowding in front of LV shop windows. They gaped at robot models of the artist, which were so lifelike that a few mistook it to be Kusama in the flesh. But now that the hype has died down, online comments have slid from exhilaration into exhaustion and unease. When TikTokker @ritafarhifinds posted a video of a gargantuan Kusama lookalike towering over Harrods in London, commenters did not share her elation:

@Yeosb Rats: “they spent all their money on that rather than giving their employees a decent pay rise?” 

@Fernandoaviv: “Personally I believe this campaign is getting out of control it’s becoming a nightmare 💔”

@seherrafiq4: “That’s scary.” 

Now, dozens of Yayoi Kusama-bots are left trapped behind glass windows, endlessly locked into mindless production of her famous polka dots. Their eyes follow passersby as they paint random splotches on their glass prison walls. If you aren’t familiar with avant garde art history, you would never know by looking at them that Kusama’s dots are in fact a life-saving method of healing a deeply hurt and very human mind.

I know because I use this therapy myself. 

I’ve been drawing patterns for as long as I can remember. When I fall into the deepest depths of despair, sometimes the only way I can pull myself out is to sit down with a pen and just draw: line after line, dot after dot, until I can breathe and see clearly again.

Illustration by the author

And I’m far from the first person to heal by making patterns. From murals painted on cottage walls to dense patterns tattooed into skin, generations of artisans in virtually every culture have created ornamental designs for as far back as we can remember. I’ve made it my purpose in life to study how the patterns have conveyed deep meaning, bound communities together, and perhaps healed the mind of the artisan. 

While most of the names of her predecessors have been forgotten, the figure of Yayoi Kusama rises above all others when it comes to painting repeating patterns. As a rare example of a prominent woman in New York’s 1960s avant garde art scene, few would link her modern paintings of enormous, mesmerizing “infinity nets” back to folk pattern traditions ranging from Australia to Nigeria. However, like many artists before her who have suffered from debilitating mental conditions, Kusama’s practice is treated as uniquely hers. 

It’s well known that Kusama suffers from conditions like anxiety and depression. Shortly after a close call with death by suicide, she voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric facility in her home country of Japan in the late ‘70s. Since then, every waking moment of her time is spent creating art. Kusama continues drawing or painting dot after dot, building an endless oasis of pattern. “I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art,” she has said. “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.” Polka dots are her life-saving therapy. 

How many others, I wonder, could find solace with little more than some paints, a brush, and a light suggestion to paint a few dots, just to see how it feels? This is certainly not a universal panacea— art therapy doesn’t cure mental illness on its own. But how would we know the possibilities if we don’t try? Does this practice become less accessible if we link it to a single, unique, “great artist?” 

In the highly acclaimed documentary Kusama: Infinity, the artist speaks of how white male artists like Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol copied her work in the 60s, presenting their versions in well-established galleries as their own. Today, however, she has surpassed them in commercial success as the world’s most profitable living female artist. Alongside her work, her face and figure have blown up to unprecedented heights—quite literally, as giant balloon copies of her body loom over Louis Vuitton storefronts in London in Paris. 

For their first collaboration in 2012, LV covered handbags, coats, backpacks, and more with fairly uniform dots. The healing magic of the artist’s hand quickly vanished as her work was commodified and mass produced. Her work is so flattened that it’s not surprising when online commentators describe it as “just dots, tbh.” Under one of my videos, more commenters joined in: 

@dlisbergsonton: “What is there to see about her ‘art’ .. just dots.”

@8ontheside33: “What art ??? It’s dots”

@efenyamebekyere: “She literally got famous for drawing circles 😭😭😭 y’all anything is possible”

LMVH, however, has gone full-throttle on that one theme that they see as summing up Kusama herself: “dots, I guess.” Following the success of the first campaign, the company has poured a mind boggling amount of resources into the 2023 collaboration 11 years later. Louis Vuitton storefronts have drowned in a dizzying flood of polka dots, many of them placed by hand by unnamed shopworkers. The stores hawk a stupefyingly large array of products: Kusama T-shirts (yours for only $1,160.00), sneakers ($1,350.00), pajamas, bikinis, and of course, many, many handbags. These overdone and understyled products have led to tough reviews of the unquestionably lazy design efforts behind the 400-plus items in the collection. 

Photo by Alberto Antoniazzi on Flickr

Even more befuddling than the overbloated collection is the promotion strategy. Kusama’s body has joined the dots in becoming just another pattern: she is replicated again and again, floating among bulbous pumpkins on multi-story billboards, bouncing in white space within a Louis Vuitton gaming app that no one asked for, and of course, meeting windowshoppers with a glassy gaze as hyper-realistic storefront robots. 

This motif seemed to work for the brand in 2012 when they began sculpting Kusama’s body as storefront decorations, but the animatronics and digital animation have led the theme too far down into the uncanny valley. It seems like Louis Vuitton has overestimated today’s excitement over humanoid imagery and mistakenly discounted the growing fear of an artificial intelligence takeover. While AI code lacks a body, it often has a face—usually, a woman’s face, rendered smooth and poreless. It appears on Ai-Da, the humanoid hottie credited with ushering in “the age of the ‘ultra-realistic’ art robot,” on the glistening “Instagram Faces” of beauty influencers, and on the softly glowing AI portraits of stolen digital art by apps like Lensa. And of course, there’s the dubiously inclusive, “mixed race” Lil Miquela, a CGI influencer worth millions. As infinite glossy faces blur the boundary between human and humanoid, app users have begun to report facial dysmorphia. Some of us are beginning to forget what our real faces even look like.

People are afraid. Artists are alarmed at the possibility that no one will hire them if their work can be easily replicated by a machine. Younger and younger Instagram users are anxious that they’ll fall into obscurity if their real life face can’t match what they produce on screen. Just Lensa alone has brought up deeply concerning ethical issues, from the release of confidential medical records to child pornography. The reasonable fear of human labor being replaced by machines has long been a concern. But in too many cases, that fear is directed as hatred toward Asian workers, stereotyped as “robotic” themselves. Did Louis Vuitton consider that they may have replicated a techno-orientalist archetype when they built an army of smoother, younger, and unfortunately creepy Yayoi Kusama lookalikes? 

Photo by Brecht Bug on Flickr

Louis Vuitton has assured us that they are “working directly with the artist, at the artist’s direction.” While there is no reason to doubt this, the absence of a public statement from the artist herself adds to the unsettling nature of the project. This silence might be strategic— a canceled interview with Vice in 2017 revealed to many that the artist harbored racist sentiments. At the same time, her lack of comments make the silence of her roboticized body all the more blaring. The artist appears less like a human using her art to work through struggles with mental illness than an increasingly profitable object.

Louis Vuitton has degraded a deeply healing expression of cultural tradition into a luxury good, implying that you can only come close to the magic of her ornament if you can cough up enough cash. And even then, it’s a low-quality copy of Kusama’s dazzling originals. 

A comment by user @y3llowduckies says it all: “kusama stress relieve dot become other’s stress.”

Isabella Segalovich is a writer and educator who studies the intersections of craft, art, and politics. Her “anti-authoritarian folk art history” videos have amassed over 190 thousand followers across social media platforms, and in 2021, she was included in an article in Architectural Digest on “where to find the best interior design content on TikTok.” She is also a contributing author and TikTok correspondent for Hyperallergic, a professor of design history at Kean University, and a faculty member of the New York Crit Club.

Header image by Brecht Bug on Flickr.