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Wanderlust: Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

Yayoi Kusama, Dots Obsession (Love Transformed into Dots), 2007.

By Nancy Nesvet

Washington, D.C. – Crashing websites to obtain tickets to the show, standing for hours in multiple lines to view the work, never-before seen crowds in America are going crazy for Yayoi Kusama. Because the work relates to universal concerns, this trip to infinity has us all trailing along, and when done with our 30 seconds in an installation, just wanting to go back again for more.

Alone, standing in a cosmos of pointed light, or surrounded by rows of golden pumpkins, my loneliness is alleviated by the unaccountable vastness and brilliant colors of these shimmering objects. As Yayoi Kusama fears loneliness most, she has conquered her fear with a self-imposed treatment program of desensitization. Her constant making of repetitive round forms, be they lights, pumpkins or seeds, leads to organized patterns that allow her and us to organize the overwhelming chaos in our lives and surroundings and visions to a pattern of beauty and life. She wants “to show that I am one of the elements-one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe.”

No longer lonely, I am immersed in the beauty, in the light, for that fleeting moment allowed in each installation. Emerging from this installation, a dark-lit room resembling the cosmos, and entering another, I am surrounded by heavy, gravity-bound pumpkins sticking to the dark earth cemetery ground I stand on in the dark night. Death in the cemetery of pumpkins becomes life with the addition of golden light, just as floating stars in space become linear patterns of light leading to infinity. We don’t die, but merely become part of the infinitesimal points of light, one dot among millions, or one in a field of round, living golden pumpkins, bound to the earth, but infinite. Like dying, I am propelled into space, returning, to ground covered with pumpkins. We can’t long for that celestial world we have just experienced, because life here on earth, with those golden pumpkins is just as spectacular. If this is our infinite future, what a preview Kusama has given us.

The retrospective, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., until May 14, includes paintings, three room-size installations (“All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” “Chandelier of Grief” and “Where the Lights in My Heart Go”) and sculptures. They provide a complete lexicon of her motifs, color, layering, light, reflection and exploration of the body and the celestial universe. The exhibition covers the three main periods of her career, from her 1958 arrival in New York City when she climbed the Empire State Building stairs to survey the city’s lights, then staging happenings, painting everything and everyone with dots; her work in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Japan and her rediscovery and frenetic making of work from the 1990s to the present.

The river of white stones behind her house in Japan inspired an early work, black polka dots on white canvas, “Infinity” (1952), establishing her repetitive patterning of dots to fill the vacuum. Hereafter, her visual field is obscured by nets or dots that cover everything as in “Infinity Nets” (1960) where white nets, painted over black or grey grounds limit the view of what lies behind or underneath them separating Kusama from her traumatic surroundings. Those nets that obscure and the dots they delineate persist, in various forms, throughout her work as she explains in the catalogue for her second exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair; “the universe-would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots.” Everything is covered with dots, from the circular forms of “Infinity Nets,” to the round acrylic pumpkins of “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016), to the points of light in “Infinity Mirrored Room-Brilliance of the Souls” (2014) to paper dots with which we are encouraged to cover the white room (reminiscent of the mental institution Kusama lives in?), in “Obliteration Room” (2002), created again here, to the clothes she herself sometimes wears. Formally, “Nets and dots extinguish the contours of the objects”. Considering content, Kusama continued, “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment. I become part of the eternal and we obliterate ourselves in love. (Manhattan Suicide Addict, 1978)

On the wall are photographs of her 1960s happenings, when she painted nude bodies with dots, because “painting bodies in the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe.” (Interview in BOMB magazine with Grady Turner, winter 1999.)

Kusama’s 1960s peep-show mirror boxes, included in this exhibit, allow us views of that infinite universe. (“Mirrored Room-Love Forever No. 3,” 1965). Undoubtedly influenced by New York’s pornographic peep shows during the ‘50s and ‘60s, they afford us a limited, solitary view, portending the room-size installations that allow us physical entrance into the celestial Kusama-created world.

Cloth-covered, handmade, painted phallus shapes repeat ad infinitum in the multi-genre work, “Infinity Mirror Room-Phalli’s Field” (1965/1998) and again in “A Snake” (1974). She has to touch the phalli as she makes them, constructing them, understanding how they operate, stuffing them with foam until they stand stiff. But they are not connected to anyone. They function as objects. She deconstructs her fear as she constructs these objects and orders them in martial patterns, marching across the landscape she inhabits. The resulting desensitization releases her from fear of sex and phalli, she claims.

“Polka dots symbolize disease…Nets symbolize horror toward the infinity of the universe – We cannot live without air.” (BOMB magazine interview with Grady Turner, Winter 1999.) Whether phalli, or city lights, or specks of radiation falling from atomic bombs, Kusama has created the modern sublime, with her installations showing fear of death, but the beauty of the universe surrounding us, perhaps after death. Whether the twinkling lights of Tokyo or New York, from her perch in space, her body no longer tied to the earth, or concrete, or penetrable, this work overcomes fear, of sex, of death, of loneliness.

Only an old artist, and Kusama is 87, who has thought about death, experienced hallucinations full of colored lights, flown above dark cities filled with twinkling lights and also witnessed rows of the dead, buried, tombstones above them in fields, can produce this work. Thank you, Ms. Kusama for alleviating the fear of death and replacing it with a curiosity for what is to come. Kusama has said (Yoyoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrors). “After I die, I hope that people see that my paintings are about love and peace and spirituality.” Yes, Ms. Kusama, I see that.

Go see it for yourself.

(“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” continues through May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at 7th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. For more information, call (202) 633-1000.)