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Vanishing into infinity

Yayoi Kusama at the Hirshhorn.

Infinity mirrors at the Hirshhorn

Standing alone, surrounded by a cosmos of points of light, or rows of glistening, golden pumpkins, my loneliness is alleviated by the unaccountable vastness and brilliance of these shimmering forms. But there is a dark side to this brilliance; the artist’s suffering and experience played out on this field.
Yoyoi Kusama, a very private artist, who hides in a mental institution at night, and in her nearby studio by day, fears loneliness. She has conquered her fear with a self-imposed treatment program of desensitization, surrounding herself with myriad companionable forms. Her constant making and exhibition of repetitive round forms, be they light, pumpkins or seeds lead to organized patterns that allow her and her audience to organize the overwhelming chaos in our lives and societies, surroundings and visions in a pattern of beauty and life. Kusama wants “… to show that I am one of the elements – one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe.”
No longer lonely, I am immersed in the beauty, in the brightness of a thousand stars for the few moments I am allowed in each light room. With multiple points of brilliance, below me, surrounding me, above me, I cast the only shadow in the room. Only a human can cast a shadow in this starlit universe. Emerging from the light room, by turning my back on this cosmos, entering another, I am surrounded by heavy, gravity-bound pumpkins sticking to the dark earth cemetery ground on which I stand in the dark night. I cannot escape the similarity of the womb and pumpkin shapes, the pumpkin’s stem resembling the elongated sperm entering it, seeds inside ready for fertilization. The cemetery of pumpkins is enlivened and fertilized begetting life, with beams of golden light, just as floating stars in space, in the last installation become linear paths leading to infinity.
It is all related in one narrative. We do not die, but become infinitesimal points of light, one dot among millions, in the heavens. On earth, we must inhabit the ground, like pumpkins, like women’s wombs, receiving sperm that fertilize the seeds within us, to allow the civilization to go on. We cannot long for or inhabit that celestial world we have momentarily experienced, because human life on earth, that of the golden pumpkins, the golden wombs of our present time are just as spectacular.
All of Kusama’s work, totally autobiographical, reflects her past and present. A woman artist, the issues she embraces in her work are timely and relevant. Perhaps that is why websites crashed with attempts to obtain tickets for her show, Infinity Mirrors, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and at the Cleveland Museum of Art. One of her first installations, Infinity Mirror Room-Phalli’s Field, (1965, Castellan Gallery,New York), featured the artist lying on a bed of multiple, hand made polka-dotted, snake-like pillows, clearly intended to be phallic forms. Kusama invited viewers to walk a polka-dotted path of phallic forms while seeing themselves and the forms reflected in the mirrored floor. Here, Kusama merges the technology of mirrors and light with the hand-made craft technique of sewing, which she executes herself, emphasizing the making of the universe, be it on earth or in the cosmos.
Since that first installation, Kusama has produced twenty different mirror rooms. They have ranged from life-size rooms to mirrored peep-show chambers to domed mirror rooms surrounded by inflatable balloons hung from the ceiling to the dark, mirrored “infinity” rooms of cosmos-like points of light seen at the Hirshhorn, in Cleveland and in other museums shows.
The retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and various iterations of the show including at the Cleveland Museum of Art during the first Cleveland Tri-ennial in Summer, 2018 included paintings, room-size installations, sculptures and mirrored peep shows. They provided a complete lexicon of her play with motifs, color, layering, light, reflection, and exploration of the body and the celestial universe. The exhibitions covered the three main periods of her career, from her 1958 arrival in New York City, when she climbed the Empire State Building stairs to survey the city’s lights, then staged happenings, painting everything and everyone, including her own nude body, with dots; her work in the late sixties and early seventies when she returned to Japan, and her rediscovery and frenetic making of work from the 1990’s to the present.
According to the artist, having survived World War II in Japan, when she felt she could no longer go on, she observed a river of white stones behind her house, leading to her repetitive patterning of dots to fill a vacuum, first shown in her 1952 work, Infinity, with black dots on a white canvas. However, I contend that observation of fallout and shards of destroyed buildings and civilizations during the war led to this field of dots that marks all of her work. The use of phallic symbols, of male power, further corroborates the World War’s destructive power and fallout from the bombs, instigating her mark making.
After those initial dotted paintings, she created painted visual fields where nets or dots cover everything. In Infinity Nets (1960) white nets, painted over a black or grey ground limit the view of what lies behind or underneath them, separating Kusama from the traumatic surroundings. Those nets obscure and dots persist throughout her work, as she explains in the catalogue for her second exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair; “The universe would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots.”
Everything is covered in dots at her Hirshhorn exhibition, from the circular forms in Infinity Nets, to the round acrylic pumpkins of All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) to the points of light in Infinity Mirrored Room-Brilliance of the Souls (2014). We are encouraged to cover a white room, with white furniture, (reminiscent of the mental institution where Kusama spends her nights, or a hospital where one might have recovered from the radiation-induced illness after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with colored dots in Obliteration Room, (2002), Kusama writes in Manhattan Suicide Addict, (1978). “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.” Obviously, she refers to the obliteration of nature by the bomb, the ensuing radiation illnesses, uniting the devastated environment and the self. BOMB magazine’s interview with Grady Turner , Winter 1999, states, “Polka dots symbolize disease…Nets symbolize horror toward the infinity of the universe-We cannot live without air.”
Cloth-covered, handmade by Kusama, painted phallus shapes repeat ad infinitum in the multi-genre work, Infinity Mirror Room-Phalli’s Field (1965/1998) and again in A Snake, (1974). She had to touch the phallus shapes as she made them, constructing them, stuffing them with foam until they stood stiff. But they are not connected to anyone. They function as objects, divorced from the body they might connect to. She deconstructs her fear as she constructs these objects and orders them in martial patterns, to march across the landscape she inhabits. The resulting desensitization releases her from fear of sex and phalli.
Whether phalli, or lights or specks of radiation fallen from atomic bombs, Kusama has succeeded in creating the sublime; her installations show her fear of death but also the beauty of the world that awaits, and that of the universe that surrounds us above earth’s atmosphere, untouched by the disease and horror unleashed by powerful men. Whether the twinkling lights of Tokyo, or New York, from her perch in space, her body no longer tied to the earth, or penetrable by radiation, or phalluses, or disease, she overcomes fear, of sex, of death, of loneliness.
And old artist, now 88, who has thought about death, experienced hallucinations full of colored lights, seen the power of men, and feared sex; ( she never married or bore children), flown above dark cities filled with twinkling lights and seen rows of dead, diseased, buried, with tombstones above them in fields, has produced this body of work. She has alleviated the fear of death, forgiven those who bombed and killed, and replaced it with a curiosity of what is to come. She wrote, in Infinity Mirrors, “After I die, I hope that people see that my paintings are about love and peace and spirituality.” Yes, and ugly, mundane reality and the beautiful light of the universe.

Nancy Schreiber / Liz Ashe

Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp30-31

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