Whilst in LA, the opening of the “Infinity mirrors” exhibition by Yayoi Kusama at the Broad Museum was a much talked about subject. Most of our friends were hoping to get hold of tickets before the end of the show
When the Broad released 50 000 tickets online in September, the $25 passes sold out in less than an hour. The museum then released an additional 40,000 tickets — and they went within two hours.
The first U.S. museum survey of the 88-year-old Tokyo artist’s Infinity Mirror Rooms is clearly becoming the Broad’s most popular exhibition since its inaugural show in 2015.
Kusama as a strange almost ‘childlike’ female artist has intrigued me since I discovered her work in the late nineties. Much of the allure of her work comes from the mystique she has built around herself. The artist in the fiery red wig has lived, by choice, in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital for decades. Despite recently opening her own museum in Tokyo, she remains extremely private and grants limited interviews. I was told that she did not travel to L.A. for the exhibition’s opening. Much of her art stems from her traumatic childhood and I am interested in the obvious connection between her art and her strange childhood.
As a 10-year-old, Kusama began experiencing hallucinations she described as “flashes of light, auras or dense fields of dots”. Her mother was ever suspicious of Kusama’s philandering father and recruited the young girl to spy on him. The experience traumatised her, creating a fear of sex, which she grappled with in her work, populating installations and sculptures with countless hand-sewn phalluses.
Yayoi Kusama turned 16 just a few months before two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, obliterating first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Those horrific events in August 1945 were — and remain — the world’s only episode of nuclear warfare.
Kusama lived with her family in Matsumoto, a little over 400 miles to the east, which might be like living in Los Angeles if San Francisco were to get atomized. The impact, psychological and emotional, would be profound.
Throughout the 1960s and early 70s, Kusama’s paintings and performances mirrored an age where vision was constantly challenged and new vistas consistently sought. At various points, Kusama was espoused by artists across a variety of formats and theoretical concerns, including pop, minimalism, and surrealism. Perhaps more pointedly, her work appealed to New York’s turbulent political and social environment. Kusama staged multiple fully nude happenings across the city to protest the war in Vietnam, economic disparity and the excesses of Wall Street, and the hierarchy and gender inequality of museums. At the same time, her visions matched the transcendental aspirations of psychedelic drugs and mind-altering spiritual movements of hippie culture. “Her work in the ’60s, staging happenings and performances, really were about creating an experience that values the audience over the object”.
In 1966 she took a sudden break from making her large-scale Infinity Rooms, and didn’t return to them for 25 years. It wasn’t until her work was showcased again at the Venice Biennale in 1993 that she regained the notoriety, confidence and monetary resources to revisit her Infinity Mirror Rooms.
Of Kusama’s 20 Infinity Mirror Rooms, six were chosen by Mika Yoshitake, the exhibition’s curator, for their historical significance. “Phalli’s Field” was not only Kusama’s first but also speaks to process: The artist couldn’t hand-produce her soft sculptures fast enough to fill her appetite for repetition, so she used mirrors to infinitely reflect them. “Love Forever,” a 1966 hexagonal peep chamber that’s pulsating with electric colour, is psychedelic and political at once and addresses civil rights, sexual liberation, voyeurism and anti-war sentiment.
The exhibition includes Kusama’s paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Kusama still paints every day, and her recent large-scale works from the series “My Eternal Soul” address repetition, the obliterated self and bodily memory. For Kusama, obliteration means eradicating an individualistic sense of self, allowing it to be absorbed into an amorphous, universal infinity.
The Infinity Mirror Rooms are strategically spaced out between these more two-dimensional exhibits so that visitors can unwind with the framed works and sculptures between the timed room
The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), the first room, part of the Broad’s permanent collection, is a darkened space illuminated by dozens of lights made boundless by mirrors, giving the viewer the sense that she’s anchorless in a sea of stars.
Kusama’s second mirror room that I mentioned earlier, Love Forever, accommodates two viewers at a time standing outside, peering in through small windows. “You see your eyes and you see somebody else’s eyes,” “It’s playing with the idea of vision and the idea of voyeurship. So, originally she installed that work in 1966 as part of an installation called ‘Kusama’s Peep Show.'”
“All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” Kusama’s newest Infinity Mirror Room, from 2016, features delicate, hand-painted, fiberglass pumpkins, a recurring image in her work, reflected in black glass and intimating an alien landscape.
“The Obliteration Room” is the room with no mirrors, possibly my favourite one because it allows a participation from the viewer. It’s an all-white interior – an open-concept living and dining room in which visitors are invited to put random, multicoloured stickers on every surface. As attendance swells and dot-stickers proliferate, a blank domestic space is essentially transformed into a walk-in bag of Wonder Bread.
This immersive experience is meant to address life, love, human connectivity, mortality and the afterlife, not to mention identity and the infinitely reflected — or “obliterated,” as Kusama calls it — self.
The infinity mirrors make you feel vast and tiny at the same time, and I think that’s how we all feel a little bit in today’s world, which is so technology-driven and complex and information-driven. You feel significant and insignificant at the same time – and that clearly strikes a human chord.
In her infinity mirror rooms, the audience member, the viewer, becomes the subject. You walk into the room and the door closes behind you and you see yourself reflected. Not only the objects around you but you are infinite.
There’s a renewed interest in her work and its relevance, particularly the Infinity Mirror rooms.
What the viewer would have felt like in 1965 might be a similar experience that people are having with them today, that they continue to feel really innovative and experimental. People are flocking to see them wherever they’re shown. Kusama couldn’t possibly have predicted this 21st century effect when she created her early works, but now they feel a little prophetic.