all photos: Jeff Martin
Before the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors doors open to the public on February 23rd, it will already be deemed a massive success by the current art world success barometer: instagram engagement. As I type this, almost 48 hours before a regular civilian has the opportunity to see this, there is already 1000+ #infinitekusama photos, all breaking engagement records for those who were lucky enough to get a sneak peek at the show and the number is bound to multiply rapidly. To give you a point of reference – Hirshhorn’s previous (and also very photogenic) Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition garnered about 12,000 (properly tagged) photos over the course of the show run, and Kusama is bound to break that by the time the first week is over.
Now, this is not, I promise, going to be one of those reviews that bemoans the state of art in the era of instagram, because, in the end, whatever gets the world engaged and actually attending museums and interacting with the work in front of them is a good thing. And we get it, the tickets will be timed, the access to the infinity mirror rooms are the ultimate bragging right, and in 30 seconds that you will be allowed in one of those, how could you resist not taking a photo? We are all only human, after all.
However, we will use this opportunity to urge you to engage BEYOND the obvious photo opps. This show, arriving in the timeliest of times during the winter of this city’s greatest discontent, offers us an opportunity to step inside the beautiful, troubled mind of a woman who defied (and continues to defy) any categorization and convention, and deserves a viewing eye focused solely on her, and not on convenient interpretation (or exploitation).
With a career spanning over six prolific decades, a retrospective is a daunting task but this exhibition flow offers a tightly focused, if somewhat loosely chronological journey through the stages that led us to Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors as they exist here and now.
Kusama’s career first came to some western art world prominence in the 1950s with her works on paper, which she created quickly and instinctively. In them we can easily spot the orbs, eggs, columns, and other symbols that will come into play in her later work. It is almost impossible to not take a look at In Infinity, and its hovering black watery dots and not see the embryo of Infinity Mirror Rooms.
In the 1960s Kusama was one of the most undeniably out-there, colorful characters of the art world. Today, you people will try to classify her as pop art, feminist art, minimalist art, whathaveyou art when, in fact, she preceded (and then rejected) all of those movements. She spent this decade throwing orgies-as-performance art, standing for sexual revolution in ways that transcended her gender or personal interests, and defying any categorization in a way that feels heroic even now. The list of artists she influenced goes on like an all-star roll call: Warhol, Oldenburg, Segal….
And yet, during that loud, seemingly unstoppable time, Kusama’s emotional and mental struggles became bigger and stronger than herself, without a doubt amplified by her financial hardships and the volatile political surroundings, and caused her to turn to repetitive, larger scale paintings, showcased here as Infinity Nets. These pieces, which alongside her Accumulation Assemblages, lead us into the final variations of her vision (the rooms themselves, which she started working on in 1963 and still adds to in the recent years) are “without composition, without beginning, end or center” and have a definitive art-as-therapy energy to them that invite a viewer to get lost in their intrinsic sadness.
Even as you walk into the rooms themselves, as wonderfully overwhelming and colorful and almost explosively creative as they may seem at first, there is a calm, almost somber feeling that permeates all of them. And while it may be hard to resist that 30 second timed photo opp as you step into them, hear us out: maybe just try to be there. Be there with the lights, the pumpkins, the polka dotted phalluses. If you give in, her own heartbreakingly simple explanation of what drives her work: “I am trapped in my life, yet I cannot escape from death”, may start making sense.
The last room in the exhibition, aptly named Obliteration Room, is the perfect final step into that mindset: the visitor is invited to place polkadot stickers onto the perfectly white surfaces of the objects around them, slowly but surely engulfing the space around them in color. The color dots can stand for all the obsessions that enrich and pollute our mind, slowly taking over. This is a state Kusama herself knows all too well.
In 1973, following her decades long struggles with mental illness and the trigger of the death of her long term platonic love Joseph Cornell, Kusama returned to Japan in hopes of recovery. She tried on a number of additional creative outlets: writing, collecting, fashion and film and in 1977 checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since, by choice.
In the late 1990s the art world was ready for a new (old) hero and Kusama’s work came to a spotlight again, something her involvement with the David Zwirner Gallery team has very much allowed for, as she continues to prolifically create in her 9th decade.
This tour, which we are lucky to have kick off right here in D.C., as both a visual treat and a welcome distraction from the harsh realities of life in Washington D.C. right now, is the first major North American cycle in over two decades, and trust us, you need to see it (and feel it) for yourself.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors opens at Hirshhorn, February 23rd and runs through March 13th. Free timed passes are required. There is a number of programs (film, talks, etc) planned around the exhibition as well. Plan your visit here.