The name Yayoi Kusama should be familiar to anyone who has an interest in art, feminism or polka dots. The Japanese artist has been infusing the art world with conceptualism, focusing on sexual and autobiographical themes. After my initial introduction to the artist, who painted yellow Polka dots on naked protesters in 1970s New York, I knew I would sell my soul to get tickets to her latest exhibition, Infinity Mirror Rooms, at the Tate Modern in London. €70 is essentially the value of a student’s soul; nevertheless, I bought a ticket. To contextualize exactly why this artist made me risk international flights and the tube during the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be best to explain who Kusama is.
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist born on 22 March 1929. She was born into the village of Matsumoto, Nagano, to a family of seed farmers. Her early home life was less than ideal, as her mother was physically and emotionally abusive. Using Wonton soup as a reward, her mother would often get the children to trail their father on his many affairs. Having seen her father with his lovers, Kusama reflects that this would contribute to her lifelong contempt for sex – both her fear and obsession with it.
Kusama’s mother was also very critical of her artistic pursuits. She often told her daughter that she would bring shame on the family and live the life of a beggar. They would fight often, and Kusama would be locked in the storehouse without food for hours. She began experiencing hallucinations from the age of 10, along with asthma and a hearing defect. A combination of these experiences left her feeling a sense of separation from the outside world, a theme which would emerge in her art. History buffs might note that Kusama reached adolescence when Japan entered World War Two. Kusama spent this time working in parachute-making factories with a constant noise of air-raid sirens and B-29s flying overhead. She began to form her ideals of creative and personal freedom, and would develop them further at Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1948.
“Kusama left Japan at the age of 27, feeling that contemporary Japanese society was ‘too small’ and ‘too scornful of women’ for her taste.”
Kusama quickly became frustrated with the distinctive Japanese style of Nihonga, which the Kyoto Municipal School taught, and began pursuing Western avant-garde styles. By the 1950s, Kusama was depicting abstract forms and covering a variety of surfaces – walls, floors and naked assistants – with what would become her trademark polka dots. These dots, or ‘infinity nets’ as she calls them, were taken directly from her hallucinations. Kusama left Japan at the age of 27, feeling that contemporary Japanese society was “too small” and “too scornful of women”, stated in Lives of the Artists by Robert Shore. She moved around to different parts of the U.S.A, seeking advice from artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, and established a reputation as a leader of the avant-garde movement. In the early 1960s, Kusama shifted towards sculpture and installation art by covering surfaces with white, phallic protrusions. She also began organizing happenings in conspicuous spots like Central Park in Manhattan that often involved nudity as a way of protesting against the Vietnam War.
Kusama’s passion towards these protests can be seen in her letter to Richard Nixon offering to have sex with him if he would end the Vietnam war. She opened naked painting studios and a gay social club. Although she took the feminist and avant-garde movements by storm, her actions were still shameful in the eyes of her family, which in turn made her feel isolated and suicidal. In 1973, Kusama returned to Japan and checked herself into a mental hospital, where she currently resides by choice. She has rented an art studio which is a short distance from the hospital in Tokyo.
Within the Tate Modern, Kusama has assembled two of her Mirror Rooms: Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life, and Chandelier of Grief. After arriving at the gallery, which should be on every art enthusiast’s to-visit list, I went up to the fourth floor and entered the exhibition. The two installation rooms are covered by white panelling, which Kusama claims makes them blend in with the gallery walls. The exterior of the pods make the structures look small. Both occupy the diagonal corners of the room, with Chandelier stationed in front of the entrance and Brilliance of Life in the bottom right. Both are lined with a velvet rope, and a part-time Tate employee is tasked with timing everyone’s visit into the rooms.
“Although I was in an enclosed space, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness as I watched the continuous reflective corridors stretch out from all angles, with me as its midpoint.”
Stepping into the Chandelier room, spectators are warned of the flashing lights and the disorientating nature of the exhibition. The hexagonal space is covered with mirrored paneling that seems to continuously extend, returning reflections of you from each angle as you move throughout the space. In the center is a solemn chandelier that flickers every few seconds. I began to feel as if I were in a Stanley Kubrick film – my spatial awareness slipped further the longer I stood there. Although I was in an enclosed space, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness as I watched the continuous reflective corridors stretch out from all angles, with me as its midpoint.
“By placing these tiny lights in front of the mirrored walls, Kusama creates an expansive galaxy in the enclosed space that presents the infinite space in different hues.”
The line for Brilliance of Life was slightly longer, with many guests eager to capture an artsy picture for their Instagram. The room, similarly enclosed in a white pod, is a rectangular structure with mirrors coating its walls. A path of mirrored tiles makes its way through the room, with shallow water filling the gaps it leaves. From the roof, tiny LED lights are suspended, which change every few seconds to a different colour. By placing these tiny lights in front of the mirrored walls, Kusama creates an expansive galaxy in the enclosed space that presents the infinite space in different hues. The installation is, above all, beautiful, and left me in awe. If I were to sit and marvel at the space around me for hours, I still feel it wouldn’t have been enough time to take it all in.
Although I snuck into the exhibitions thrice, I would have spent even longer in the Mirror Rooms if security hadn’t kicked me out. The emotions that Kusama cultivates within these rooms are remarkable. Both rooms trigger very different intense feelings. The next round of tickets for the Mirror Rooms are due to go on sale in December. Tickets cost £10, however if you become a member, your tickets are free. Regardless of your level of modern art expertise, being able to interact with the work of this ground-breaking contemporary artist is an experience I would recommend to everyone.