LONDON — Could it have been in 2012 or thereabouts that I wrote Yayoi Kusama’s obituary?
I remember to this day the look on the face of the receptionist at Victoria Miro, Kusama’s London gallery, that look of mingled shock, sadness, and dismay, when I asked her for some research material. I had to reassure her, quite quickly, that this was just the way national newspapers such as the Independent behaved. They liked to have the copy ready and filed away in advance of the day….
That day has not yet come, I am pleased to say.
2012 was also the year that Tate Modern staged a huge Kusama-fest of an exhibition, curated by the museum’s current director, Frances Morris, full of paintings, fabric works, sculptures, and immersive rooms, one full of light, another teeming with softly wormy phallic writhings ….
One evening I asked her what kind of an artist Kusama is. A phenomenon, she replied.
All true, of course. Kusama is everywhere these days, all at once. New York, Berlin, London. She is a phenomenon. She is also a brand. The last time Victoria Miro staged a gallery show, there were queues around the block to see the mirror rooms, queues that never seemed to diminish in size, no matter how often you walked by.
So it’s a pretty smart idea, financially speaking, to re-open Tate Modern this spring with a Kusama show called Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms. And the crowds have come flocking, queuing online hour after hour after hour, with an infinity of patience. Every last ticket is sold until October. New tickets will go on sale in September.
All good news then? Not quite. Why? Blame the pandemic. The show has been hobbled by money — or the lack of it. It feels like only half a show really. Rather than produce a new catalogue, the Tate has reprinted the catalogue for the 2012 show, with a spanking new jacket! So you can read about the show you never saw, or reminisce about the one you did see if you were lucky.
There are just five installations in all, and lots of floor space between them for wandering — or cartwheeling across if you are a child. When I mention this detail to my guide at the Tate, she tells me that all this space is needed to deal with the queues that will form for the Infinity Mirror Rooms, of which there are two (one of the two was in that 2012 show).
Of the three other installations, only one — The Universe as Seen from the Stairway to Heaven — is new. It is, in fact, the only new work in the show. Such a title seems to promise much, yet it delivers little. It’s a tall, box-like structure punctuated by peepholes through which you see your own image replicated over and over again. But the peepholes are far too small. You don’t really see much at all. This is an exercise in damp-squibbery.
And so on to those Infinity Mirror Rooms.
Will you be able to linger long inside? I ask my guide. No. Two minutes max, and then out. Four people inside at any one time.
Two minutes? I special-plead. At other locations, she shoots back, visitors have been allowed one minute or a minute and a half. Even as little as 30 seconds! Where could that last location have been? I ask myself. Pyongyang? Unlikely. I begin to experience a creeping twinge of gratitude.
The first of the Mirror Rooms, Chandelier of Grief, sounds like the title of a bad Surrealist poem but it is much more interesting than that. You enter it through a sliding door that you can shut, smoothly and noiselessly, behind you. That feels troublingly entrapping, as if you might never leave again. Being a coward, I leave it slightly ajar.
Inside you find yourself standing in a seemingly infinite space, lit by a single chandelier enclosed within a glass polygon. The chandelier gently turns and turns, its light flickering. The walls of the space are covered with mirrored panels, cunningly angled so that you do not know quite how many enclosed chandeliers there really are. There could be many — but then there could be many of you too, because you too are forever receding into the distance.
Apart from the light from the chandelier, it is utterly dark, chillingly so, vertigo-inducingly so, in here. The floor and ceiling are black. But inside that single illuminated polygon there is an abundance of light. The floor and ceiling are mirrored, too, so that the light is reflected above and below, endowing the floor with an unknowable, incalculable depth. And all those lights look a bit like fish swimming in an unfathomable ocean.
It is only when I begin to walk ahead and try to touch the walls — and you do not really want to do this because it is never really clear how, or even where, you can proceed — that I finally understand that there is only one chandelier, and that all the rest, all this infinite replication, is an extravagant, room-engulfing trick of the light.
As I stand there, rooted to the spot, I think back to Kusama’s autobiography, to her difficult, repressive childhood in Japan, to her parents, who made it clear that they never wanted her to be an artist, to how she rebelled and won by escaping to America, and to her desire to share with the rest of us the strange hallucinations that she first experienced as a child.
And, yes, it does somewhat feel, when you stand in this room, that you are standing inside her mind. How to describe this experience though? Is it religious or even mystical? Or should we dust off an old ’60s turn of phrase and call it mind-bending?
It does feel a bit odd that the infinite reflections of a turning chandelier could induce the beginnings of such a disorienting and even otherworldly experience. After all, does not a chandelier dripping with Swarovski crystals (as this one is) belong to the luxury market? It seems worlds away from religious ideals of austerity and self-displacement.
I began to wonder whether we would feel similarly strange twinges of otherwheres if we were staring at infinite repetitions of a Bulgari watch, or, say, a gilded statue of Vladimir Putin? What then? How much of the effect is the object reflected, or the reflection of the object?
I think of the lines Henry Vaughan once wrote:
I saw Eternity the other night, Like a great ring of pure and endless light, All calm, as it was bright; And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years, Driv'n by the spheres
Fortunately, I notice that I left that sliding door slightly ajar.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Rooms continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through June 12, 2022.