A cosmos of colored orbs dangled in the darkness. Each one blinking in tandem, from a gentle cadence, rising to a thunderous cascade, and culminating in a crescendo of light. Then blackout. It was like being caught somewhere between a dream and a nightmare; a kind of harmony between existential angst and universal connection.
Of all the artworks in Yayoi Kusama’s latest exhibition, “Infinity Mirrored Room – A Wish for Human Happiness Calling from Beyond the Universe,” represents the psyche of the enigmatic artist better than any other.
Standing alone in the center of the four-meter-squared space, mirrors on all sides giving the impression of infinity, and a vibrant lightshow playing out on every plane of existence, it became clear: this is Yayoi Kusama.
Through the Looking Glass
What the rest of us would refer to as a full-blown psychedelic experience, for Kusama has always been one version of the norm. From a young age she experienced, or should I say suffered from, vivid hallucinations; a transcendental melding of the senses.
Instilling a combination of ecstasy and fear these visions inspired much of Kusama’s work. And rather than leading to a lifetime of struggle, it defined her ambitions, sending her on the path to becoming one of Japan’s greatest living artists, whose creative juices are still flowing on approach to her 92nd birthday.
Her latest exhibition, THE VISION OF FANTASY THAT WE HAVE NEVER SEEN IS THIS SPLENDOR, which kicked off at the Yayoi Kusama Museum in Tokyo on July 30, celebrates the nonagenarian’s trademark marriage of surrealist pop art and abstract expressionism presented in blasts of trippy sculptures, canvases and interactive centerpieces. The collection is composed of works she’s been compiling over the past 10 years; 22 of which have never been shown to the public before, either in Japan or globally.
Everyone’s an Artist
“I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space,” reads a paragraph from the book Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, originally published in 2002.
Kusama’s new “FLOWER OBSESSION” installation takes direct inspiration from said quote. The stage is set within a recreated living room, left as though the family occupying it had momentarily evaporated, down to coats hanging from fixtures on the wall, a haphazardly scribbled upon children’s chalkboard, a stacked bookshelf, and crockery scattered across the floral-patterned kitchen table.
Breaking the “no touching” Golden Rule of museums, a bowl of flower heads with adhesive backs is placed invitingly by the doorway. Your objective: pick up a flower and place it anywhere in the room. This kind of player agency is a rarity in the world of high-end art museums, and given the early stage of affairs, I had a blank canvas to work with, so to speak. I spied a globe in the corner, and couldn’t resist plonking a flower on Northern Ireland – God knows people back home could do with a bit of summery cheer in the current climate.
But there is method to the apparent madness: eventually the entire room will be enveloped with flowers, usurping every surface, much like the vision Kusama experienced as a young girl. This pseudo-breaking of fourth wall, carries with it a powerful message: we are all artists.
But not everything in the exhibition operates in the realm of 3D immersive art. In fact, much of it is what we’ve come to expect from Kusama.
The museum is comprised of five floors of minimalist viewing rooms. Much of the pristine white wall space is covered in canvases depicting her warped view of the world, including 16 acrylic paintings from the latest installment in her iconic “My Eternal Soul” series.
The 1m x 1m pieces, bearing names like “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN NAMELESS BLACK SHADOWS JUMPING ACROSS THE UNIVERSE?” and “MY HEART’S INFINITE HYMN BROUGHT BY ALL THE SHAPES AND COLOURS THAT WE KNOW,” burst forth in a mosaic of distorted patterns and images. Obsession is a key theme in Kusama’s repertoire, and her continued desire to represent the visions she’s been experiencing since her formative years is a testament to this fact.
The “FLOWERS THAT SPEAK ALL ABOUT MY HEART GIVEN TO THE SKY” sculpture sitting in a breezy open-air gallery on the roof is unmistakably Kusama. As I stared into the bestial eye of the polka-dotted flower, the exhibit’s final piece, it looked back with a hypnotic quality; almost like the artist herself was sitting on the other side of it with a metronome whispering, “you are under my spell.”
Trying to make sense of Kusama’s work is seldom a straightforward endeavor, but I was continually drawn to a line in her poem-cum-artwork, “Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict,” where she speaks of tearing down “the gate of hallucinations”.
Kusama has been refining this metaphysical craft for the best part of a century. In some sense, it’s the true synopsis of her life’s work. And at THE VISION OF FANTASY THAT WE HAVE NEVER SEEN IS THIS SPLENDOR you’ll get a brief glimpse of what lies beyond those gates.
YAYOI KUSAMA MUSEUM
Opening days: Thursday–Monday and national holidays
All tickets must be purchased in advance online
Entry is timed and only valid for a specific 90-minute time slot
Tickets go on sale at 10.00 (JST) on the first day of every month for the following month
For the latest information on the opening schedule, please visit the museum’s website
Feature image: Portrait of Yayoi Kusama, © YAYOI KUSAMA