The Hirshhorn Museum retrospective exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work is the first to focus on the Japanese artist’s mirrored-room environments.
Art Radar takes a look at the exhibition of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, on show at Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden until 14 May 2017.
The focus and highlight of the exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park are five installations: Yayoi Kusama’s psychedelic environments consisting of a selection of mind-bending sculptures that rise organically from the floors or ceilings. These forms, which recall simultaneously the robotic and organic, are fragmented and multiplied by the mirror-lined walls that create a kaleidoscopic experience.
The pumpkin and the mirror room: infinity and abundance
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) is Kusama’s most recent “infinity room”. It is a reworking of an older piece entitled Reach Up to the Universe, Dotted Pumpkin (1991), in which large aluminium sculptures of pumpkins sit in a room with alternating black and orange walls. These have been dotted with convex mirrors that replicate the gleaming, perforated exteriors and monochromatic interiors of the pumpkin sculptures they surround.
Pumpkins are an important motif in Yayoi Kusama’s work and reportedly stem from the artist’s early years growing up in postwar Japan. In Kusama’s hometown of Matsumoto, which was relatively untouched by the food shortages of the time, the artist recalls an abundance of pumpkins in the Kusama family’s storehouse. The artist has recounted that she consumed the vegetable to the point of nausea at the time. Since then, the pumpkin has occupied a central place in the development of Kusama’s artistic vocabulary – from her painting and drawing days during her studies of nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts to her giant outdoor pumpkin sculptures, commissioned for Naoshima Island, in Japan’s inland sea, and for the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art in 1994.
In All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins (2016), Kusama’s pumpkins of varying sizes glimmer neon orange. Reflected in the surrounding mirrors, the multitude give the impression of a glowing field of pumpkins filled to infinity. In this sense the pumpkin room – supposedly the most visited Kusama infinity room so far – is most apt at transmitting the themes that the Hirschorn exhibition hopes to highlight in Kusama’s work: notions of infinity and repetition and other more pressing social issues such as abundance and shortage, accumulation and necessity.
Here the spectator is encouraged to understand Kusama’s mirror room – a technique that Kusama pioneered in the early 1960s – as an experiment in producing an experience critical of the commodification of images of abundance. Her pumpkin mirror room simulates the manipulation of representations of quantity via optical illusions and seems to seek a spectator not fooled by promises of infinite glimmering golden pumpkins. In mid-February, a visitor reportedly tripped and fell, smashing one of the ceramic glowing pumpkins (worth almost USD800,000, according to Artnet) causing the room to close for three days.
Kusama first used mirrors as a multi-reflective device in Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field produced in New York in 1965. Phalli’s Field is the first infinity mirror room that viewers encounter in the Hirshhorn Musuem, where they step among Kusama’s signature stuffed phallic tubers covered in red-on-white polka-dot fabric. Kusama employs tiny lights in other mirrored rooms in the exhibition to varying effects. In Love Forever (1966), a floor fitted with thousands of tiny lights offers a miniature lighted universe viewed through a peephole.
In Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009) and The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013) thousands of coloured lights and lantern shapes create the impression of a sprawling city or an immense galaxy. Other environments in the exhibition require viewer participation for the completion of their patterned chaos. For example, in Obliteration Room (2002- present), a completely white space filled with white furniture comes with an invitation to viewers to stick colourful dot stickers wherever they please.
Other Kusama works
The exhibition also includes a series of early drawings which are framed as precursors for the intimate, organic microcosms that the artist later expanded on in her “Infinity Mirror Rooms”. In Infinity, black watery dots hover in a dense mass reminiscent of cells in a petri dish. In other works, such as Flower QQ2, the dots may suggest a red light emerging from a distant haze. Hidden Flames, The Island in the Sea No. 1, Inward Vision No. 4 and Long Island employ decalcomania, a Surrealist technique of blotting the surface of a sheet of paper with wet gouache paint and pressing another sheet against it to spread the pigment around.
There are also four of Kusama’s 1960 “Net” paintings at the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition. Kusama’s “Infinity Net” series paintings, which she unveiled in her first gallery show in 1960, are canvases painted a monochrome of red, green, white or with loose patterns of tiny strokes, offering a meditative and controlled alternative to the Jackson Pollock drip paintings.
Also on display are as series of “soft sculptures” made by Kusama in the early 1960s. Referred to as the “Accumalation series”, the sculptures consist of countless soft phallic tubers attached to furniture. These works joined other sofas, chairs, step ladders, dressers and a large table covered in the tubers presented together in “Kusama: Driving Image Show”, a 1964 installation.
As with many of the other works included in the exhibition, the “Accumalation” series is presented as an important precursor to the “Infinity Mirror Room” works, especially Phalli’s Field, which has tubers emerging from the floor, multiplied ad infinitum by the surrounding mirrors. “Ad infinitum” is certainly the central theme of the Hirshhorn exhibition of Kusama’s work, which shows how the artist has dedicated her career to creatively and philosophically exploring the tensions between the bulbous (organic, curved or pumpkin shaped) and the flat (mirror, image and counterfeit).
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