If you haven’t heard of Yayoi Kusama before today it’s my pleasure to introduce you. Her exhibition “Infinity Mirrors” at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) sold out quickly, making it the hottest art ticket in town. For good reason. The show is more than just an opportunity to gaze at her incredible body of work spanning 65 years. “Infinity Mirrors” is an experience, with some portions literally enveloping the viewer. Dots, pumpkins and mirrors are consistent motifs.
“She is a singular figure, not part of any one movement. She’s been involved with pop minimalists, conceptual art performance,” said Curator Mika Yoshitake. “She’s often operated as both an insider and outsider in a time when as an Asian woman artist operating within the male-dominated New York art world. She struggled quite a bit and I think has presented to be one of the champions of contemporary Asian art today.”
Yoshitake is the curator at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The museum organized the exhibition. Yoshitake said Kusama agreed to the show on two conditions — that it be a full survey of her art and tour North America. Hirshhorn was the first stop and SAM is the second.
The introduction into Kusama’s world is with her most recent works, “My Eternal Soul,” a series of large scale acrylic-on-canvas paintings and sculptures. Each piece is dazzling with color. The sculptures resemble microscopic organisms, eyes and the ever-present dot is widely utilized. She started the series in 2009 with the intention of creating 100 pieces. Today, there are nearly 600 in the collection. Kusama said the paintings trace the “beauty of colors and space in the silence of death’s footsteps and the ‘nothingness’ it promises.”
From there visitors have access to her infinity mirror rooms. Patrons walk inside the mirror-walled structures, an attendant closes the door, and time in the space is limited to 20 to 30 seconds. A different scene waits inside each room. Yellow pumpkins covered in black dots are in “Infinity Mirrored Room–All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.” Kusama has a childhood connection to pumpkins and considers them to be humorous objects that fill people with warm intentions. “Infinity Mirror Room–Phalli’s Field” holds white with red-dotted “soft sculptures,” sewn tubes stuffed with cotton. Because of the mirrors, each sculpture is multiplied seemingly by the thousands.
“Infinity Mirrored Room–Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” is spellbinding. The room is illuminated by LED lights hanging from the ceiling. They flicker then go dark. Kusama created a serene space that feels as if you’re surrounded by thousands of celestial bodies with no end in sight.
“This is very reticent of the floating lanterns that are part of this festival called the Tōrō Nagashi. It’s a Japanese tradition of lanterns that float down the river to guide the ancestral spirits back to their resting places at the end of summer,” Yoshitake said. “It’s also become very meaningful to commemorate victims of the atomic bomb.”
Visitors also get the opportunity to walk inside a large pink dome with black polka dots and they can peer inside “Infinity Mirrored Room–Love Forever.” The hexagonal room is filled with lights that frequently change colors. The show also includes an all-white area titled “The Obliteration Room.” The space is furnished with items found in a typical home — a table with chairs, a clock and bookshelves. Here, the crowd dictates where the dots will go. Each person is given a set of stickers to place wherever they choose. By the end of the exhibition the interactive room will be splashed with vibrant colors, resembling her signature aesthetic.
In a video Kusama talked about her work: “Hopefully people will see this and understand the purpose of my continual repetition and the web of infinity. If they can feel the same aspiration I have towards these concepts, my true intentions through my work will shine through, and I will be incredibly moved and inspired to create more, more works of art that deal with these concepts, hopefully leading to a wonderful world where everyone can be connected.”
“Infinity Mirrors” shows Kusama’s evolution as an artist — from her performance art days of having people strip naked and paint dots on each other to her works on paper. She was born in Matsumoto, the central mountainous region.
During World War II, she worked in a parachute factory sewing military uniforms. Yoshitake said this is where she began to develop her interest in sewing textiles.
She was trained in Nihongo, a Japanese style of painting using powdered mineral pigments, but rejected it for experimental techniques. After a successful career in Japan she set her sights on America.
“If I wanted to develop and widen that path [to art], staying in Japan was out of the question. My parents, the house, the land, the shackles, the conventions, the prejudice,” Kusama later recalled. “For art like mine — art that does battle at the boundary between life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die —this country was too small, too servile, too feudalistic and too scornful of women. My art needed a more unlimited freedom and a wider world.”
In 1957 she moved to Seattle, and within weeks she had her first U.S. solo show at Zoë Dusanne Gallery.
The next year she relocated to New York to be a part of the avant garde art scene. In the 1960s she began making soft sculptures, and spoke out against the Vietnam War.
Later in the decade her work took a psychedelic turn.
She was nicknamed the “priestess of polka dots” and a “hippie queen.” In 1973 she returned to Japan and began crafting poetic collages. Two years later she was treated for psychosis. In 1977 she checked herself into a mental institution and continued to stay there on her own accord.
At 88, Kusama hasn’t stopped working. Yoshitake said she produces one work about every four days at a nearby studio.
“Her work keeps her alive and happy. She’s a very intense person,” Yoshitake said. “Her work is a very therapeutic process. Death is something that is very close. Her work, her art is her way of dealing with that, confronting that anxiety.”
If you haven’t already secured a coveted spot there’s still time to see the show. SAM has day-of tickets available. Given the high demand, it’s probably best to get there early to snag one. “Infinity Mirrors” is a wildly popular show worth all the high praise it receives.
Kusama is a prolific artist whose work is every bit a feeling as it is visually stimulating.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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