Notes on Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the High Museum of Art

Installation view of  Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors  at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. [Left to right:  Accumulation  (1962 - 1964);  Red Stripes  (1965);  Arm Chair  (1963)] Photo by Cathy Carver. © Yayoi Kusama.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. [Left to right: Accumulation (1962 - 1964); Red Stripes (1965); Arm Chair (1963)] Photo by Cathy Carver. © Yayoi Kusama.

The Hirshhorn Museum’s (Washington, D.C.) blockbuster exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, premieres at the High Museum of Art (through February 17, 2019) in Atlanta, Georgia with one of the most comprehensive exhibitions by the ultra-pop artist in North America in decades. Following the curatorial efforts initially organized by Hirshhorn associate curator Mika Yoshitake, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the High Museum of Art is a sizable exhibition focused largely around the artists mirrored-room environments with critical paintings, works on paper, sculpture, performance, and video art interspersed throughout. The Japanese artist is definitively known for her Net Paintings and phallic Accumulation sculptures—compulsive, expressive works made during the 1960’s that employ repetitive use of circular motifs to generate expansive, optical fields. Alluding only parenthetically to Kusama’s contributions to Op Art and post-drip Abstract Expressionism, Infinity Mirrors keenly exploits the artists resurgent popularity as the producer of aesthetic environs consummate for social media, successfully commodifying the exhibition’s accessibility as a measure of import. 

Yayoi Kusama,  Infinity Nets  (2005) © Yayoi Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (2005) © Yayoi Kusama.

When major museums capitalize on attention economy

1. Infinity Mirrors at the High Art Museum is the final location in the exhibitions two-year tour, and as such, follows the fervor of exclusivity initially garnered with its debut at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in February 2017. Advance ticketed admission to the exhibition, as seen with previous museum tour sites in Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cleveland, was sold out immediately. Restrictive both for the immediacy of ticket sales, geographic exclusivity, and the reliance on internet-access to obtain tickets, the price of admission to view Infinity Mirrors is a prohibitive $29.00 per visitor—a fee that applies to children aged 6 and over. While the average ticket entry price for major museums has been a long-standing barrier to equitable arts access, the special costs attributed to the exhibition do not include on-site parking at the High Art Museum ($16.00) and admission to the rest of the museum galleries ($14.50). Among the reasons cited by the High Art Museum for charging a higher and separate ticket price, were “contractual obligations, complex installation and maintenance,” and, the "popularity of the artist and high audience demand.”  

2. Seven of Kusama’s mirrored environments are on exhibit at the High Art Museum, including the artists first Infinity Mirror Room, Phalli’s Field (1965), a brilliantly mirrored space whose 15-square-foot floor is crowded with hundreds of blunt tentacles covered in red and white polka-dot fabric, and Love Forever (1966), a hexagonal room of variously shifting lights and color which the viewer peers into through a small window. The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013) is the first mirrored room visitors encounter in the exhibition, and one of the more impactful environments. Dimly lit by tiny, blinking lights reflected on all sides by mirrors, the space gives the impression of being amidst a celestial expanse, or within a metropolitan skyline. Allotted thirty seconds to contemplate the environments, viewers rapidly preserve the illusionary expanse with a requisite selfie. 

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama,  Love Forever  (1966/1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo by Cathy Carver.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, Love Forever (1966/1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photo by Cathy Carver.

3. Luminous and dazzling, Kusama’s mirrored environments act as the curatorial lynchpin upon which the framework of the exhibition is based, recalling in design the blockbuster sentiment with which the museum approached ticket sales—indeed, the gallery guide enumerates the titles and locations of the seven Infinity Rooms, but makes no mention of the many other artworks on display. Exhibited throughout the museum space—at times, irrespective of the chronology or content of the artworks which border the mirror environments—the Infinity Rooms are each installed before a series of queues. Docents are stationed before each of the Infinity Rooms, given the task of overseeing and timing each visitor’s thirty second experience. Visitors await their viewing time in the variously cordoned off lines, lending the experience an amusement-park sentiment where the anticipation of the forthcoming event largely exceeds the time of the experience itself. Kusama’s Infinity Rooms also reinforce this Disney-like effect in aesthetics and access; mirrored on all sides by illusionary lights, multitudes of color, and one’s own infinite image, the experience is as exceptional as it is to be in a fun-house; entered through a narrow, dark doorway and viewed from an equally narrow platform, the experience is relatively inaccessible to differently abled bodies, or those who do not fit the parameters of the threshold. 

4. Partial timelines of events from Kusama’s professional and personal life are installed on a series of circular wall vinyls and round stanchion signs within the queued artwork lines, enumerating the artist’s awards, partnerships with major fashion houses, and personal events. Irregularly displayed in the opposite direction from where the viewer stands in line, these timelines often recede chronologically backwards as the viewer progresses forward towards their viewing opportunity—a haphazard and atemporal design of information that errantly entertains English language reading visitors standing in line, rather than elucidating greater contextual knowledge about the artwork. 

5. The use of information as entertainment is a thematic which runs throughout the exhibition, attributing Infinity Mirrors a sort of informatic-mania where timelines, images, events, and stylistic influences collide in an orgiastic mess that lacks the psychedelic energy of Kusama’s own work, and more closely resembles a sanitized google search. 

6. Although expansive in it’s quest to highlight the various stylistic and material inquiries that Kusama makes across her diversified practice in performance, video, sculpture, collage, and installation from the late 1950’s forward, the inclusion of written ephemera, letters, personal New Years Eve invitations, tabloid photographs, artist quotes, and wall-didactic milestone “timelines” in Infinity Mirrors, denotes a biographical narrative to the exhibition disparate from Kusama's artwork.

Given the necessity of photographic documentation in Kusama’s work to assert herself and her body in performance and protest, and her reliance on the viewer to complete the work—through occupation and observation—the inclusion of photographic documentation in Infinity Mirrors is an expected and welcome curatorial element that calcifies the camera’s role in her practice. Photographs of herself with, and in, her pieces such as, Kusama’s Peep Show of Infinite Love from 1966, or in her frenetically erotic and wearisome film, Kusama’s Self Obliteration, point to the artists indulgence and understanding of being seen. The sporadic inclusion of archival materials and facts concerning Kusama’s social life and commercial engagements are extraneous supports of idolatry for viewers who, having already paid their prohibitive entry ticket, need no further convincing of her artistic achievement.

Press Release for  Naked Protest  at Wall Street, New York (1968)

Press Release for Naked Protest at Wall Street, New York (1968)

7. The social component of Infinity Mirrors is an interesting aspect of this exhibition that models an obliteration of self perhaps even more successfully than Kusama’s own work. Where Kusama’s work hypnotically makes use of mirrors and circular motifs to generate repetitive forms (often, the self) for contemplation, the encouraged use of cell phone cameras by viewers to document their experience (with the exhibition’s unofficial hashtags #Kusama and #InfiniteKusama) coupled with the viewer’s requisite compulsion to document their restrictive viewing time with a selfie, is conditional for generating a multiplicity of personal experiences, singular.

Kusama’s mirrored environments are exquisite illusions of light and technology but their intrigue capitalizes on a compellingly infinite expansion of the viewers reflection. The self is magnified in a way that narcissistically enforces the viewers existence and image outward. Given the reliance of these works on the viewer to complete them through observation, the economic and geographic exclusivity of the exhibition, the physical inaccessibility of the spaces, and the temporal restraints of viewing, there is an embedded sense of individual specialness in experiencing the Infinity Mirrors. Only when mediated and documented by the single-point perspective of the camera phone and shared on social media is the self in this situation truly obliterated. Infinitely similar, reproducible, and constrained by the same conditions, the photographic document of the self, shared online, and the event, are inevitable manifestations of commodified sameness.