Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors creates an unprecedented demand at the AGO. Yayoi Kusama. ‘Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,’ 2009, Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED, black glass, and aluminum. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama.
TORONTO — Stepping into a room the size of a small shed, the door closes, blocking out the sounds of a bustling gallery and you become surrounded by millions of flickering lanterns.
While the room itself is only about 13.5 ft. by 13.5 ft., the walls, ceiling and floor are covered in mirrors, like stepping into a giant kaleidoscope. The glimmering lights hanging from the ceiling are multiplied endlessly, creating a sense of infinity.
This is called an infinity room, an art installation entitled Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Yayoi Kusama and explores the impermanence of life. The shimmering yellow lights starkly contrast against the dark room, and your body seemingly disappears in the darkness, you cannot even see your reflection in the mirrors. With the body obliterated, the room encourages the contemplation of death and afterlife.
The room evokes the setting of a toro nagashi ceremony, but in a dark room in downtown Toronto. The ceremony where paper lanterns float down a river, meant to guide spirits to their ancestral home is often used now to commemorate the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
The infinity room is part of the exhibit, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, the hotly anticipated new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto.
The exhibition features art spanning over 70 years of Kusama’s work. Kusama is a Japanese artist, born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Nagano and still works in Tokyo today. She began her career painting traditional Nihonga painting in Kyoto and moved to New York City in 1958, but not before burning some 1,000 pieces of her artwork before leaving.
She explored pop art and minimalism in New York, and her art was featured alongside artists like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow, who have all cited Kusama’s work influential to the art world. During this time, she began to explore optical art and the ability to create immersive and interactive art with mirrors and lights.
Kusama began to really make a name for herself in the 1960s, when she created radical anti-war art, protesting the Vietnam War. She would cover naked people with painted polka dots, who then took to the streets of New York City to protest.
The exhibition in Toronto is a selective survey of six of Kusama’s infinity rooms, supported by her other works of art, including her early paintings, collages, sculptures and current paintings.
“A lot of the work that we see [here], the paintings, the sculptures, the collages, they all help to contextualize her vision, which is infinity,” Mika Yoshitake, curator of the exhibition tells Nikkei Voice.
Yoshitake is a curator from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where the exhibition was created. She has studied Kusama’s work extensively, specializing in postwar art from Japan. Yoshitake says she first gravitated towards Kusama’s artwork when she in high school in Los Angeles, and saw an exhibition on Kusama’s work from the 60s.
“I wanted to just learn more about how to survive as a Japanese artist in New York, and as a woman, and her work has just been so iconic,” says Yoshitake.
Featured in all of Kusama’s work is polka dots. Kusama first saw the polka dots in sunlit stones on the riverbank behind her home in Matsumoto, where her family had a plant nursery. She began to see dots everywhere, having visions and hallucinations of the dots, explains Yoshitake. Kusama started to paint the dots to overcome her fear of the visions and began to see an infinite universe.
“The polka dot is just so small, a vast unit, but when there thousands of them, it becomes this community. It’s about life and it’s about the humble relativity to the cosmos and to the world,” says Yoshitake.
“The polka dot is very universal motif and so everyone can relate to it, and it’s very accessible, even though it is also very abstract. You can philosophize about it as much as you want,” says Yoshitake. “Ultimately she has developed a very simple idea or concept into something that can be very profound, so I think that is the power of her work.”
Haunted by visions and hallucinations for much of her life, Kusama creates colourful and bold art, all featuring the polka dots, to overcome her fears and deal with her depression. She returned to Japan in 1973 because of her struggles with her health, and has stayed there ever since.
“The reason why her art looks so positive and bold and colourful is precisely to keep herself going,” says Yoshitake. “She is very delicate, and her art, as she says, is a very healing process and a form of therapy.”
The exhibition has created a definite buzz, becoming the hottest ticket in the city and creating an unprecedented demand for the AGO.
“The numbers just don’t compare in terms of demand, it’s reaching a lot of first time gallery-goers, so it is quite exciting for the gallery to see,” Herman Lo, Director of Visitor Experience at the AGO tells Nikkei Voice.
Ticket first went on sale for AGO members in December, and then opened to the public in January. Before the exhibition even opened on March 3, the AGO had already sold 100,000 tickets. The AGO has never sold that many tickets before a show has even opened, says Lo.
The gallery is anticipates selling 120,000 tickets during its three month run. Because of the nature of the gallery, tickets have time limits, to ensure as many people can see the exhibition as possible.
Each of the infinity rooms create immersive experiences for everyone who goes through them. Only two to three people can enter a room at a time to feel its full effect, and are only allowed in the rooms for 20 to 30 seconds.
The AGO is anticipating a 20 minute wait between rooms. The popularity of Kusama’s infinity rooms is attracting many first time visitors to the AGO, says Lo, which the gallery is very excited about.
“We’re always looking for ways to engage further than we are now, so Kusama is a really great gateway for us to introduce new audiences to the world of art,” he says.
This is the exhibition’s only Canadian stop in its four museum tour, which is partly why the tickets are in such a high demand. The exhibition started at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington, and has travelled to Los Angeles, and now Toronto and will finish in Cleveland.
As people leave the exhibition, Kusama invites visitors to immerse themselves in one more piece of art, The Obliteration Room. A mundane, regular living room painted completely white, including the walls, ceilings and furniture. As guests leave, they are given a sheet of colourful polka dot stickers, and invited to stick them anywhere they can imagine in the room. Inviting visitors to participate in one more performance, connecting every person who visited her exhibition to collectively take part in obliterating the white room.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms runs at the AGO from March 3 to May 27 at in Toronto. For more information, visit: www.ago.net.
For an immersive look at the infinity rooms, check out the video below: