Yayoi Kusama’s fascinating infinity room invites reflection
If everyday life seems beige, there could hardly be a better tonic than polka dots and pumpkins. Not just any peas or pumpkins, but especially those found in Yayoi Kusama’s brightly colored and evocatively titled installation. THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS ARE DESCENDED INTO HEAVEN.
Upon entering the Japanese artist’s 7m x 7m infinity mirror room in the Melrose Wing of the Art Gallery of South Australia, it takes a moment to overcome the initial feeling of disorientation. Every surface – the bright yellow walls, the floor and the ceiling – is covered in black dots. Even more surprising is the fact that the mirrored box in the center of the space, which reflects even more points, means that you are also faced with your own image when you look around.
AGSA director Rhana Devenport describes it as “an experiential, otherworldly encounter.” In a way, it’s like the art world‘s equivalent of standing in the middle of an endless forest of trees: you feel both lost and found, abandoned in this surreal space of infinite and yet also enveloped in its embrace.
It’s all deliciously disconcerting…and that’s before you even climb the three steps on the other side of the mirrored box to lean over and peer through “the viewing space”, admiring the myriad of speckled pumpkins that seem to multiply before your eyes.
THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS ARE DESCENDED INTO HEAVEN– a traveling exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia which opens at the AGSA today and will remain there for 12 months – may seem tailor-made for the selfie generation. However, 93-year-old Kusama was designing his infinity mirror rooms decades before smartphones took over our world.
“This is his first mirror room, Palli Field – it’s from 1965, and it was done when she was in New York,” says Carol Cains, senior curator of Asian art at the NGA, pointing to a large photograph that hangs outside the infinity room of the NGA. ‘AGSA which shows a young Kusama inside. Palli Field.
The artist moved to America in 1958 and began exploring the ideas of infinite repetition and space through it. infinity net paintings. Cains – in Adelaide for the opening of PUMPKIN SPIRITS — says that during Kusama’s time in New York, where she lived until 1973, she worked in “incredibly male-dominated” spheres, first in abstract expressionism and then in pop art.
“She was doing work that was ahead of her time in many cases and other artists, she claims, copied her. Her peers were people like Andy Warhol, who worked a lot on duplication and repetition, which she was doing earlier, [and] Claes Oldenburg, who was working on soft sculpture, which she had done in an exhibition before hers.
Kusama started painting at an early age. She has had visual and auditory hallucinations since the age of 10 and instinctively began to turn these experiences into her art. Pumpkins are one of the most recognizable recurring motifs throughout his career, linked to the fact that his father was a seed dealer.
Devenport, who visited Kusama at her Tokyo studio in 2000, says she is often considered one of the most popular artists in the world based on the millions of people who have attended her exhibitions.
Two of his other overflow chambers – Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the brilliance of life and Mourning Chandelier – are currently installed at the Tate Modern in London, where general release tickets have sold out until the end of September.
“She’s an artist whose works really connect very powerfully and strongly with our audiences in so many different countries,” Devenport says, adding that Kusama is “extremely sensitive to the world and fiercely brave.”
“She is also breathtakingly prolific… her work spans seven decades in a dizzying array of media, including 13 novels and poetry collections, and literally hundreds of exhibitions. She has also worked in film, performance, fashion, and installation, and she even had her own boutique in New York when she lived there.
Highlighting Kusama’s determination and eccentricity, Devenport recounts how she appeared uninvited at the 1966 Venice Biennale with a project titled Narcissus Garden. Dressed in a golden kimono, Kusama displayed 1,500 glittering stainless steel orbs on the lawn outside the Italian pavilion and sold them to passers-by.
“And what I love is that in 1993, so many years later, she was invited back as the first solo artist to be shown in the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale – a magnificent triumphs over his determination and his vision.”
Although Kusama has been supported in Tokyo since 1997, she has a studio nearby and continues to make art. Devenport says that when she visited in 2000, the artist was cheerful, energetic and immersed in her own work.
Cains believes that one of the reasons Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms resonate so strongly with a range of visitors is that they have a performative element that reflects popular culture experiences such as circus, vaudeville or theatre.
“But I think, more importantly, they connect so well with this sort of microcosmic experience of thinking of the world as tiny particles and then immersing yourself in them, and as you immersing yourself, they s simply expand into these endless worlds…and of course, the pea and pumpkin shape is so recognizable, accessible and appealing that people can just enjoy it.
The installation process of THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS ARE DESCENDED INTO HEAVEN is complex and long, with Cains saying there is a set sequence for building the mirrored space and arranging the pumpkins in it.
“The other thing we [the NGA and AGSA] both had to have an extendable instrument so we could get into the showroom and get people’s glasses and iPhones out that they invariably drop,” she laughs. “It’s sort of part of the viewing process.”
PUMPKIN SPIRITS DOWN INTO HEAVEN are on display in AGSA’s Melrose Wing until April 30, 2023. Admission is free and no reservations are required, but capacity is limited.
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