Those of us who have longed to see ourselves reflected in a modernity not of our own making can take heart at the thousands of art lovers all over the world lining up to visit the Yayoi Kusama retrospective Infinity Mirrors.
Not only is a Japanese woman finally getting the recognition she deserves for her immense contribution to contemporary art, but we are witnessing a moment when an alternative vision of what it means to be modern—coming from the ultimate outsider—is gaining popular currency.
Almost half a century ago, as a twenty-nine year old woman from the provinces who spoke no English, had never lived outside Japan and knew no one in America, Kusama decided to move to New York City to make a name for herself in the art world.
Was she crazy? A little bit, certainly.
At the age of ten, she first started experiencing the terrifying hallucinations that would come to illuminate so much of her work. During these episodes, her mind would blur the boundaries between herself and the world she inhabited. Rather than succumb to the madness, however, she attempted to work through it by making art obsessively.
Within barely two years of her arrival in New York, works like Infinity Nets (1958) began to capture the attention of critics, who had seen nothing like it before.
“The nets I was painting had continued to proliferate until they had spread beyond the canvas to cover the tables, the floor, the chairs and the walls. The result of the unlimited development of this obsessional art was that I was able to shed my painter’s skin and metamorphose into an environmental sculptor.”1
“As I repeated this process over and over again, the nets began to expand to infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me, clinging to my arms and legs and clothes and filling the entire room.”2
The dual themes of infinity and self-obliteration are career-long obsessions for Kusama, running through her precise, endless polka dot patterns, as well as her Infinity Mirror Room series. For the latter, she would cover the walls of an enclosed space with mirrors facing each other and the ground with stuffed, polka-dot, phallic protuberances, thus creating an infinite sea of phalli.
Her installations created an instant sensation, something she was good at and had to do, to capture attention within the cliquey, male-dominated New York art world. She also frequently orchestrated art happenings in public spaces around New York City, where she would play the role of a small Japanese Svengali, painting the bodies of nude models with polka dots, literally imposing her visions onto the surface of this foreign city.
A retrospective would seem to imply that an artist’s best years are behind him or her, but one could argue that an artist such as Kusama is more important than ever, given the current resurgence of “masters of the universe.”
For the past hundred years, a period coinciding with the advent of modernity, mankind has had an unprecedented impact on the environment, to the point where the very future of the planet that we live on is in peril.
Kusama brings us a reminder that we once lived another way. To step into an Infinity Mirror Room is to lose one’s finite self in infinite reflections. It is also to experience reality as Kusama sees it: the self as a part of the environment, not apart from it.