Billions of stars burst through the night sky, leaving trails of tantalizing reveries for us to imagine, who we are and where we might come from. Yayoi Kusama, an extraordinary and venerated Japanese artist, is celebrated in this traveling exhibition, Infinity Mirrors, in which the Infinity Rooms, with their mirrored interiors, evoke cosmic space and place the observer within this vast matrix.
We are eternally curious about reality, which teases us with “fabrications” about space and time. We talk about identity: subjects and objects situated in time. The late Stephen Hawking’s final paper has just been released and it attempts to comprehend the universe as multiverse. The Big Bang was followed by inflationary expansion, which may still be continuing, producing an infinite number of pocket universes, including ours. Hawking’s paper considers the problem from the junction of quantum theory and gravity and suggests that the behaviour of these different universes may actually be very similar to our own.
Kusama’s work can be appreciated on many levels. As a young Japanese woman artist, she needed to be in New York to gain appreciation as a contemporary artist. She approached Georgia O’Keeffe and received her patronage, moving continents during the sixties. She had 100 000 yen from her parents and found a studio in a building replete with artists like Donald Judd and Eva Hesse. Her predilection for polka dots found favour within the consumerist ideology of Pop art and magazine articles eulogized her work. On the face of it, she counterbalanced artists like Andy Warhol, whom she designates as friend and rival gang-leader. She became known for her Infinity Nets, paintings without a centre that grew from the accumulation of similar marks. They appealed as Minimalist all-over construction and as Process Art, which extolled the creative process over end product. Kusama was thus very much of the milieu and fits into genres like Pop-Art, Process, Minimalist, Happenings, Fashion, Film, Writing, including naked political performance pieces protesting the Vietnam War. Sex emerged as a constant theme in her work. She says her psychological abhorrence of it stems from childhood experiences when her mother made her spy on her philandering father. Significantly, to comprehend her state of mind, she describes the net paintings as “curtains to separate me from people and reality”.
In the sixties she produced her first Infinity Room, Phalli’s Field; soft, stuffed white cloth tubules covered in red polka dots. A small, mirrored room contains the sprouting garden of phalluses, giving the impression of stretching to eternity. The six infinity rooms at the AGO are all based on the same principles and employ varying strategies like suspending LED lights, using darkness, flashing, programmed lights, acrylic balls and pumpkin shapes. The dot is ubiquitous and can be seen as a symbol of the sun, moon, solar system and even us. These infinity rooms are crowd-pleasers. One, Love Forever, uses a Hexagonal structure. Two viewers look in simultaneously, having their heads replicated to infinity.
However, Kusama is more interesting in her methodology of creation. She is deliberately engaging with a philosophy of life in her work. As a child she experienced hallucinations in her surroundings, with plants talking to her. She developed a therapeutic strategy to harness the energy of these occurrences and employ them as a means to approach infinity. This took the form of painting patterns of dots beyond the boundaries of the painting and onto her architectural surroundings. She seems to be in a reverie during this process and can maintain her “sense of being” as long as she is applying marks.
In a bizarre way, she is actually far more in touch with reality than the average person. We project a Newtonian interpretation of reality yet quantum mechanics tells us this isn’t so. Dr. Ames’ constructed rooms delivered optical illusions exploiting parallax, demonstrating that our way of “seeing” is buried deep within us. We cannot stop seeing it as “real” despite knowing it’s an illusion. Kusama, by doggedly adding dots to every passage available, ends up defining the cosmic boundary, enabling us to see beyond the subject and object.
She is fully aware of her quest and her difficulties. In the seventies she returned to Japan and admitted herself to a sanatorium where she continues to reside. During the day she leaves to work in her studio, which is nearby. She has an abiding interest in nature, with recent paintings and sculptures exploring pathways within natural form. There are shapes reminiscent of amoeba and unicellular organisms alongside tubules and faces. In her eighties and wheelchair bound, this extraordinary artist continues to paint her works as if existence depends on it.
My favourite room was All the Eternal Love I Have For Pumpkins. Kusama refers back to her teens when she worked in the fields to produce food for the soldiers. She became enamoured with Kabocha pumpkins, and recreates them in acrylic, painting intricate dots to define their form, lighting them within using LED lights, so they glow.
Just prior to exiting the exhibition through the The Obliteration Room, there is My Eternal Soul, a collection of paintings and sculptures produced since 2009. They consist of beautiful, colourful, organic sculptures; budding and sprouting, with names like My Adolescence in Bloom, Surrounded by Heartbeats and Story After Death, in front of a wall of paintings that revisit natural themes and look almost pictographic. One leaves with a sense of her enormous heart and love for the mysteries of existence.
This exhibition will come to define a very eccentric and idiosyncratic artist as an important artist spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. When she left New York in the seventies her fate was to be unknown in Japan and forgotten in New York. She has transcended these limitations, and judging from her more recent work, still has much to contribute. Her art is a reminder that we really don’t know reality and should appreciate a truly wonderful artist who opens our doors of perception!
Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors. The Art Gallery of Ontario, March 3 to May 27, 2018