Spring has come early to Washington, D.C., and not just in the form of an unseasonably warm February that has driven bougie SoulCycle fiends to plunder neighborhood wine shops of their rosé stock. No, spring has arrived at the Hirshhorn Museum with polka dots, twinkling lights, and glowing pumpkins in the form of one of the biggest Yayoi Kusama exhibitions ever kicking off this Thursday.
There is perhaps no bigger draw for a museum around the world than the 87-year-old Japanese wonder Yayoi Kusama. A retrospective of her works smashed attendance records in Latin America and Asia back in 2013, and the permanent installation of one of her Infinity Mirrored Rooms at the Broad in Los Angeles generates around-the-block lines every day of the week.
This blockbuster exhibition, titled Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, features a whopping six of her Infinity Mirror Rooms along with more than 60 other works by the artist. That is the largest number of Infinity Mirror Rooms ever in the same place at the same time. These mirror rooms of twinkling lights, glowing pumpkins, or psychedelic geometric light patterns have become cultural sensations over the years particularly with the rise of Instagram. There is perhaps no greater testament to the power of that social media platform with regard to Kusama’s work than Adele using video footage of the Broad’s Infinity Mirrored Room after seeing it on Katy Perry’s Instagram.
For the uninitiated, standing alone in one of her rooms can be a truly moving experience—imagine being in a real-life version of the afterlife in The OA. And given the pall cast over the capital for the past month, a few minutes of otherworldly bliss feels right.
Born in Matsumoto, Japan, in 1929, Kusama grew up in a family that owned a nursery and seed farm. From very early in her childhood, Kusama suffered from hallucinations and relations with her parents were strained—her father was unfaithful and her mother abusive. As anybody who had the fortune to catch the 2012 retrospective on her work at the Whitney, even as an art student in Kyoto she was pushing into surrealism and abstraction, constantly pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for a woman of her time. In 1957, Kusama left for the U.S., first to Seattle for a year and then to New York City where her career took off despite a predominantly sexist art scene.
In the new Hirshhorn exhibition, her works on paper from Japan and her early pieces in New York give tremendous insight into the artist’s lifelong attempt to create the sense of limitlessness—to obliterate the senses. Her 1960 Infinity Nets Yellow is a mesmerizing example of this, with its honeycomb of yellow and black engulfing the canvas. In the ’60s Kusama also started creating her Accumulation “soft sculptures”—stuffed phalli she attached to furniture to aid her in her fear of sex. Some are emasculated in this form, covered in spots or bright colors. Others, like those painted with silver for her 1963 Arm Chair, actually seem more menacing.
Kusama eventually found the physical demands of producing her Accumulation sculptures to be taxing, so she experimented with using mirrors to achieve the scale of repetition she desired—and the art world has never been the same.
Debuting in 1965, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field was her first Infinity Mirror Room and the first visitors will encounter in the exhibition. A floor covered in white phalli speckled with red polka dots is reflected in all directions by the surrounding mirrors. And while viewers will not be able to recreate that iconic shot of Kusama in a red onesie laying on top of the phalli—you’ll still get 30 seconds of being surrounded by spotted penises as far as the eye can see.
Nearby (since the exhibition is largely arranged chronologically) is the next of Kusama’s Mirrored Rooms, the psychedelic Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever; a hexagonal room of flashing geometric patterns viewed through a peephole that recreates her Endless Love Show mirror room where she staged group performances in the ’60s.
Performances were a big part of Kusama’s success in New York, and the exhibition will give hope to outlandish performance artists the world over. A section of it is devoted to Kusama’s nude Body Festivals where she covered nude dancers in dots to protest the Vietnam war. Her colorful and provocative performances made her a photographer’s dream, with her 1969 Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead in the fountain of the MoMA sculpture garden making the front page of the New York Daily News.
But as the frenzy of the ’60s fizzled into the ’70s, Kusama lost her way—and her health. In 1973 she retreated to Japan and in 1977 moved into a psychiatric hospital where she still resides. For the next decade and a half, she and her work would fade into obscurity in the West until she exploded back into popular consciousness at the 1993 Venice Biennale representing Japan.
This exhibition includes some of her work from this time in exile, including the heart-tugging 1975 collage Soul Going Back Home which was part of a series done as an homage to her recently deceased friend Joseph Cornell.
The exhibition continues to work its way through her various pieces, including the, um, bubbly Dots Obsession—Love Transformed into Dots (a room of giant pink bubbles with black dots, one of which has a Mirror Room you can walk into that’s filled with inflated bubbles, another which has a peephole for a mirrored chamber of metallic balls) and My Eternal Soul (a series of paintings begun in 2009 exploring color and death). But the reasons the timed tickets will continue to be gobbled up (the first two weeks are already gone) and lines will likely fill the sidewalk along Independence Avenue, are the three recent show-stopper Mirror Rooms in which Kusama uses LED environments. The first is Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, her 2013 installation that caused a sensation at the David Zwirner Gallery with its twinkling rainbow of LED bulbs that found a permanent home at The Broad. The final Mirror Room is the Infinity Mirrored Room—All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, which features luminous yellow pumpkins (a recurring item in her work) covered in black polka dots of various sizes.
But it is the middle Mirror Room that stands out. Obliteration—that feeling of nothingness, particularly when it comes to death—is a major theme of Kusama’s work, and the closest I’ve come to that feeling in any of her installations over the years is with the aptly titled Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity.
A mirrored black space creates what appears to be an endless black nothingness, and then, with a flicker, an infinite number of golden cylindrical lanterns come to life, puncturing the darkness and creating a moment of peace. Kusama was inspired by the Japanese tradition of Tōrō nagashi, in which paper lanterns are sent down a river to lead ancestral spirits to where they will rest.
Given the number of Mirrored Rooms, and given too that the exhibition will not go to New York City (it will travel to Seattle, Los Angeles, Ontario, Cleveland, and Atlanta), this exhibition is likely to be one of the biggest Washington, D.C. has seen in quite a while. In a museum world in which the spectacular is the biggest draw (see last year’s Renwick reopening, or the National Building Museum’s The Beach), the Hirshhorn may have just played a royal flush.
So given the number of visitors expected, the exhibition’s final piece (another of her works that caused a stir at Zwirner) will likely be a delight. The Obliteration Room is a room in which everything—all its furniture, fixtures, and floor—is painted white. Each visitor to the exhibition is given a set of stickers to cover it, which over time will turn the room into an explosion of polka dots.
“Lose yourself in the timeless stream of eternity,” Kusama once wrote to President Richard Nixon. “Anatomic explosions are better than atomic explosions.” It’s hard not to read that and view it as anything other than gob-smackingly naïve. Kusama says she wants young people to “fight with all their might” and “push our society towards a brighter future and a world full of peace.” Yet, there is something about Kusama’s work that, given the state of global affairs, seems a bit wishful thinking. The world she creates is one in which harsh realities and complications are papered, painted, and bedazzled over—where the struggle of reality is quite literally drowned in oblivion.
But in this time of embittered disillusionment, I’ll take anything that makes people smile.