Works from Yayoi Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series, on view in the installation Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
WASHINGTON, DC — For the next 14 weeks, the second-floor galleries of the Hirshhorn Museum will feature designated queue areas, with corralled crowds filling spaces usually home to sculptures, pedestals, and benches. As you may have gleaned from Instagram,
, a major retrospective of the Japanese artist, has come to town, and it centers on Kusama’s most popular but least accessible constructions: her immersive mirror rooms, filled with everything from soft, spotted phallic tubers (“Phalli’s Field”) to plump, polka-dotted pumpkins (“Infinity Mirrored Room — All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”) that all appear to extend infinitely into distant darkness. Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room — All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016)
Avoiding these lines is impossible for any institution, as Kusama intended that one to three people enter these spaces to properly experience atmospheres that delight as much as they disorient. The Hirshhorn has taken on the colossal challenge of exhibiting six — the most ever shown together. To avoid potential chaos in a show meant to guide visitors to poetic peace, the museum has tripled its usual number of volunteers, is releasing free timed passes for the first time, and has limited viewing times to a mere 30 seconds in each room. (For visitors with disabilities, the museum is debuting VR technology that allows individuals to experience the rooms, which do not meet ADA standards for wheelchair accessibility.) The Hirshhorn is the first institution to explore Kusama’s evolution towards these glimmering boxes, but it won’t be the last: the show will travel to five other museums, spreading Kusama’s electric, dotted visions through the US and Canada to, at the very least, introduce much-needed moments of joy in the world’s current state of unease.
The Brutalist donut, as Gordon Bunshaft’s arced design for the museum is affectionately called, is a site well suited to examine the development of Kusama’s distinct installations, which bridge architecture, sculpture, performance, light, and even textiles. One-hundred-and-five works, curated by Mika Yoshitake, fill its curved, continuous gallery in rough chronological order, allowing for a straightforward stroll through five decades of the prolific artist’s works (when you’re not waiting in line, that is).
Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room — Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” (2009) Yayoi Kusama, “Life (Repetitive Vision)” (1998)
Kusama’s mirror rooms, which are not built into the museum’s offshoot galleries but stand as singular installations, are undoubtedly the star attractions. If you are somehow able to make the most of your 30 seconds, they can transport you to the quiet cosmos, to a lonely labyrinth of pulsing light, or to what could be the enveloping innards of a leviathan with the measles.
Yayoi Kusama, “Polka Dots of Polka Dots” (1975)
But in between these immersive works are the spot-saturated stepping stones that should not be overlooked: various series of large-scale paintings, smaller works on paper, and sculptures that seem to writhe and sprout wildly from the floor. Archival material such as past exhibitions, catalogs, and photographs of the artist’s happenings in the ’60s and ’70s also offer rare glances into the un-Instagrammable Kusama years.
Kusama’s art is often explicitly intertwined with her
well-known past, tinged with psychological distress and her self-commitment to a mental institution. But Infinity Mirrors’ wall text makes little mention of this history aside from mentioning that her work serves as self-therapy. It focuses instead on form and technique, inviting us to experience Kusama’s evolving output through more personal interaction, unguided by psychoanalysis.
Many of her works must be seen in person — and I don’t just mean the immediately photogenic rooms: her
Infinity Net paintings, from her first difficult years in New York, have incredible texture that guides your mind to stillness; lesser-known, biomorphic collages she made in Japan in the mid-1970s combine fabric, ink, and pastel with dexterity. Kusama’s works on paper aren’t flashy, but they relay the wide range of material she embraced to introduce the mind-bending dimensionality we readily associate with her work today. Yayoi Kusama, “Flower” (1975) (image courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama)
I found “Phalli’s Field (Floor Snow),” Kusama’s first mirror room, the most intriguing of the six for this focus on material and careful handiwork. Although some may quickly brush if off as whimsical, it is a space filled with labor, as each wormy form has been stuffed and sewn together. It is born of a dogged craft that following rooms lack, often relying instead on the choreography of light. Take, for instance, “Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever,” a 1994 iteration of a work first installed 30 years prior. A room you cannot enter, it is a box with two holes through which people peep to gaze at blinding, warm bulbs that flicker like Times Square billboards on overdrive. Kusama intended that strangers have a brilliant encounter, but phones and cameras, no doubt, will do most of the waving now.
Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirror Room — Phalli’s Field (Floor Snow) (1965/2016) Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever” (1966/94)
To compare Kusama’s works over the course of 50 years is to witness a total change in approach but towards the same fascinations. We’re first greeted by “Infinity,” from 1952 — an unassuming scatter of black dots steadily inked on a small piece of paper — and are finally ushered from the increasingly dizzying Kusamaland with an immense, ever-changing, and unpredictable installation that will blossom wildly with color over the exhibition’s run: her famous “The Obliteration Room,” in which visitors are invited to freely cover a room of white-painted IKEA furniture with provided stickers. It is meant as a collective and connecting act for the public but holds little of the sincere devotion present even in that minimal, dotted sheet.
Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity” (1952) Yayoi Kusama, “The Obliteration Room” (2002-present, installed 2017)
But “The Obliteration Room” is just fun, namely because it grants an opportunity to immerse yourself entirely in Kusama’s eccentric world. Her mirror rooms, though transportive, offer limited experiences — you can’t walk further than a few feet in each — and you can’t touch anything, of course. Many of her sculptures unfortunately shed some of their magic, staunchly established as objects in a museum as they perch on platforms, are set to the side, or stand behind rope. The yellow tentacles of “Life (Repetitive Vision”) (1998) could have appeared to break through the museum’s floor like an unruly cephalopod rather than served up like exotic calamari on a white platter. The eye-popping series
My Eternal Soul is presented as if in a showroom, with sculptures standing in front of large paintings stacked one atop another.
These are all intricate, vibrant works that when grouped together, distract from individual appreciation. Reminiscent of carnivorous plants with alluring spines and bulbous forms, the sculptures deserve to be seen in the round. I imagine them planted across the gallery to create a delightfully grotesque garden of metal and stuffed cotton— but of course, much of this space is designed to accommodate crowds. Yoshitake
told me she would have liked to do away with the platforms, but the dangers of the blockbuster exhibition are simply too great. It’s a pity these obstructions are unavoidable. Thirty seconds is far too short to find an inner tranquility, but these spiny forms don’t fail to endlessly mesmerize even in their separate corral. They make plain that one does not need mirrors to generate worlds unbounded. Works from Yayoi Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series Yayoi Kusama, “M.A.M. Egg” (1954/63) Yayoi Kusama, “Violet Obsession” (1959) Yayoi Kusama, “Dots Obsession — Love Transformed into Dots” (2007, installed 2017) Yayoi Kusama, “Dots Obsession — Love Transformed into Dots” (2007, installed 2017) Yayoi Kusama, “Dots Obsession — Love Transformed into Dots” (2007, installed 2017) Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room — All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016) Installation view of Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Installation view of Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Installation view of Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Yayoi Kusama, “Body Festival” flyer (1967) Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever” (1966/94) Installation view of Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn BESbswy BESbswy BESbswy BESbswy Yayoi Kusama, “The Obliteration Room” (2002-present, installed 2017) Works from Yayoi Kusama’s My Eternal Soul series Yayoi Kusama, “Pumpkin” (2016) Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors continues at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden ( Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC) through May 14.