One gray, misty morning in downtown Washington, D.C., a line formed around the circular courtyard of the Hirshhorn Museum. The occasion for the high volume of visitors was the arrival of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit, which will remain in DC until May 14. Having experienced her “Firefly Room” at the Phoenix Art Museum, Kusama quickly became one of my favorite contemporary artists, so I made plans to see her art. And I wasn’t alone.
Advance tickets become available online on Monday at noon. Two things happened when I attempted to order tickets: the site crashed, and the quota of advance tickets sold out immediately. This left me and hundreds of others with no option other than lining up before opening hours to pick up same-day timed passes. Our line zigzagged through an enormous shipping container. Several museum employees arrived to guide us through the roped queues and into the museum. The experience was not unlike waiting for a ride at a theme park; two hours from the time I first arrived, I picked up my tickets for the afternoon.
Kusama first gained recognition in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, but only achieved fame in 2014, when her displays were presented in museum retrospectives. Her collection comprises sculptures, paintings, and photographs, but most noteworthy are her immersive and interactive displays.
In these displays, senses are engulfed by light, color, and a sense of endlessness. Small LED lights blink, intensify, and alternate colors in small structures with windows and against mirrored walls with black reflective ceilings and floors. Spotted pink orbs are suspended from ceilings, and a sea of red and white oblong objects fills yet another room, like some kind of strange, interplanetary ball pit. Another room is filled with glowing gourds, while another room, filled with small lights resembling lanterns, is reminiscent of Tōrō nagashi,a Japanese tradition of honoring the dead by sending lanterns down a river. “My life has been a series of bewilderments in space and time that have sent me obsessively wandering the border between life and death,” Kusama wrote.
The rooms themselves are small; as per the artist’s request, they only hold two to three people at a time. Despite the close confines, the mirrors give viewers the sensation of being in an overwhelmingly vast space, allowing Kusama to successfully translate the concept of infinity into a tangible experience that is simultaneously intimate and expansive.
In recent years, Kusama has become one of the most respected and highly acclaimed personalities in the art world. However, this was not an easy path. The artist’s home life as a child was not a happy one, and she suffered from mental illness. In the 1960s, Kusama moved to New York City where she pursued her art career against her mother’s wishes. Despite a lack of familial and financial support, she gained recognition for her work and became relatively successful. However, following several failed “stunts” in the 1970s, Kusama’s works were heavily criticized and she once again found herself in abject poverty. These setbacks exacerbated her mental illness and led her to return to Japan, where she voluntarily admitted herself to a mental hospital, where she continues to reside.
Kusama’s psychological history is significant, not only as an inspirational reminder to viewers that life is full of second chances, but as a point of reference from which to appreciate her artwork. In her autobiography, titled “Infinity Net,” Kusama describes looking at a tablecloth, then looking up and seeing the floral motif of the tablecloth layer/overtake her field of vision. The first time she saw a pumpkin, she believed it was speaking to her. She dealt with her delusions by transferring them into repetitive patterns of lights, polka dots, or paint strokes. Alternatively, it is her way of bringing frightening internal processes to the surface, transforming them into something beautiful and whimsical that can be approached and enjoyed. Part of this self-healing involves active participation on the part of the viewer. Inviting the viewer into her world serves as another form of catharsis for her internal distress.
Fear and delusion, the drivers behind her work, generally inspire feelings of pain and discomfiture. Kusama uses repetitive patterns, which she refers to as “creation and obliteration,” to obscure images, and thus “obliterate” the object of her fear or disgust. The last room in the exhibit, the “Obliteration Room,” invites the museum guest to take part in the “obliteration” of a purely white dining and living room by placing colorful round stickers of varying sizes anywhere in the room, which features a table and chairs, a working piano, white plants, lamps, and bookshelves that have been decorated by thousands of museum guests.
There are a few downsides to visiting this exhibit, mostly having to do with its aforementioned popularity. In addition to the long lines into the museum, visitors must wait in line to enter each installment. Part of the widespread appeal is the phenomenal photos visitors can take while they are there. So, while it is great to stand in the room unaccompanied by strangers and take pictures, guests can only stay in the room for 25 seconds before the next groups of visitors are prompted to enter by a museum employee with a digital stopwatch. In those 25 seconds, you have to decide how you will allot your time. Will you spend it taking pictures with your smartphone? Or will you just enjoy being in the moment?
Anyone can appreciate the irony of having to process the concept of infinity in mere seconds. I personally found it challenging to absorb the sensory explosion in those few moments, but my memories of the truly dazzling, bewildering world of Yayoi Kusama convince me that my visit was absolutely worth the effort and that it will be worth yours too.
When she is not writing, Batya H. Carl works as a school counselor for Prince William County Public Schools. She is a Washingtonian from birth and currently resides in Northwest Washington, where she regularly attends Congregation Kesher Israel.