Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors – Reflections on the Hirshhorn Museum

Amidst the burst of Yayoi Kusama infecting all major timelines it is necessary to recall how we pander directly to her curiosities: setting her, her work, and ourselves further into obliteration with each repost. Set to tour five major North American museums, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, originates within the Hirshhorn Museum, with intentions to pinpoint the makings of her mirror rooms through strenuous motif development.

Kusama’s subversive methods of production have inspired endless solo shows, multi-media collaborations and constant rediscovery. She currently stands as the second top earning living female artist on the auction circuit at just over 7.1 million. This is comparable to David Hammon’s placing ninth as a top earning living American artist with only 8 million, also the only artist of color on the list; Hammons is just above Cindy Sherman at 6.7 million. With such predictably lopsided figures concerning Other bodied artists, Mika Yoshitake’s iteration of Infinity Mirrors has chosen to focus less on Kusama’s mental state, “a well-rehearsed feature” of her work, and turns to her political and artistic activism in pursuit of the infinite.  If women artists are made to suffer for their work, instead we celebrate Kusama’s dedication to attaining an anatomic explosion of connectivity and love. This very message welcomes visitors on the second ring, taken from director Melissa Chui’s 2016 interview at Kusama’s Tokyo studio in Japan which is replicated further into the exhibit.

Kusama with recent works in Tokyo

But lest we jump the line, let us backtrack. Red polka dots at L’Enfant Metro Station and along 7th Street guide visitor’s curiosities directly to the bespotted Hirshhorn. Positioning themselves as gears, visitors are able to wind the clock semi-chronologically through her career, increasing in depth both visually and contextually. Five Infinity Rooms invert the white cube and viewers participate as art objects within. Alongside over 200 of her works, two Peep Shows and The Obliteration Room this is far from a retrospective but the layout allows the viewer’s vision of Kusama to grow alongside her own.

Bunshaft’s cyclical design is a natural habitat for Kusama’s world, but with an influx of visitors and members not akin to the norm, the Hirshhorn has nearly tripled the floor staff, increased accessibility and created a line system apparently worthy of its own hashtag. Among the many Washington Post articles of Infinity Mirrors, in early March they published a How to Survive guide. While logistically helpful, I would like to add to this for future iterations.

As a Visitor:

Read the WaPo article and do general research (kusama.si.edu) as the closing approaches. With suggestions similar to visiting an amusement park,  keep in mind you are still entering into a liminal space so enjoy the disconnectivity the museum can provide and remember to look. Enjoy it, take pictures of course, but experience Kusama beyond the lens. And when you are behind the lens consider how your posts will dissolve among the literal millions (currently over 9 million) to come this year and into 2019 and consider their worth against this fact.

#infinitekusama on Instagram

Within the Hirshhorn you will pass through a series of dimly lit, signed and stationed queues so inbetween each remember to look. The exhibit, in its essence is repetitious but remains unexpected. Beginning with her 1950’s paper works, although she began painting around 13, her meticulous attention to recreating the same emerges through her Surrealist practice of decalcomania. Soft and wavering dots, nets, and amoebas reminiscent of her plant nursery upbringing and early travels across the Pacific appear sparsely in these works. Throughout Infinity Mirrors, didactics continue to draw contemporary classifications of Kusama to major movements but its important to note her specific intentionality as revealed in the Hirshhorn’s recreation of Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show. The centerpiece, Violet Obsession, a found boat covered in purple stuffed and stitched phalli and surrounded by photographic reproductions of the same, marks Kusama’s integration of technology as a method towards sustaining an infinite immersive environment. With a published book of poems under the same name, synesthesia serves as a point of departure for Kusama.  

Violet Obsession, 1994

Nature’ cyclicality and endlessness persists through Kusama’s poetry, Infinity Net paintings, soft sculptures, Happenings and Infinity Rooms. Yoshitake couples Kusama’s foaming Infinity Nets with her Accumulations providing a balance between the disintegration of space and the protrusion into space. Her monotone and two tone wave imitations draw comparisons to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism but Kusama integrates the gestural while Color Field and Minimalist artists sought to eliminate this component. Likewise her well-worn soft sculptures predate those of Claes Oldenberg who achieved such notoriety for them his wife would eventually apologize to Kusama. Hanging among these works, remember to look to one of her many contributions to fashion, Flower Overcoat, a bronze petti, refurbished especially for this exhibit and only to be featured at the Hirshhorn.

No. T. W. 3. detail, 1961

Beyond this point, peppered between a reimagining of her first room Phalli’s Field and her most Instagrammed, Souls of Millions of Light Years Away are photographs, projections, and posters of her performances, shows and reviews, alongside remnants of her relationships to other artists, dealers, and collectors. Remember to look were it not her relationships to artists like Georgia O’Keefe, who encouraged her US migration, or DC gallerist Beatrice Perry, who petitioned for Kusama’s visa, its possible this exhibit would still be decades in the making. Acknowledge this importance of forming relationships as you will enter rooms in groups of twos and threes, regardless of how you arrived so don’t be shy in line.

Into the perceptibly playful Dots Obsession frame, Kusama’s voice looms over the lines , “Swallow the anti-depressants and it will be gone/Tear down the gate of hallucinations/Amidst the agony of flowers, the present never ends.” Recited in post-war Japanese, an extremely polite contrast to her eccentricism, the space turns dismal as Kusama melds multiple extremes of absurdity into the micro and macro. As visitors await a ready translation remember to look upon yourself and fellow selfie-snapping visitors actively trapping one another in this present as a shift occurs here.

Dots Obsession- Love Transformed into Dots, 2007

Her voice follows into the next gallery, where collage watercolor and ink works indicate her 1973 return to Japan after the death of artist Joseph Cornell and voluntary institutionalization in ‘77. Reminiscent of her ’50’s paper works these are her most detached works presented. Incited by Cornell’s naturalistic shadow boxes, her implementation of collaged animals and dots departs from earlier hand painted repetitions and nonfigurative works. Their distant tranquility persists in Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity in which visitors often have the most visceral reactions, exclaiming amazement as well as fear, both when they enter and exit and occasionally demand to be let out of before their time expires.

Yet another shift occurs in this space as the backdrop of her studio is recreated with massive, stacked paintings and eruptive sculptures from her current series, My Eternal Soul. The series, with over 500 pieces, more of which are on view at the National Tokyo Art Center, maintain motifs with a renewed vibrancy. Remember to look at their titles as they often directly contrast this visual appeal. All About My Heart above I Who Have Taken an Anti-Depressant present themselves as inverse to one another. Black speckles build upon an orange bliss in the former as the latter hosts a black background barely permeated by orange eyes and a chaotic shift in their borders is induced. Another coupling lies in I Love Myself, I Adore Myself and The Wind Blows the only paintings presented in the grouping to utilize just pink and just blue. One is bold and intentional while the other is layered and scattered, a possible pair of self portraits in different mental capacities.

I Who Have Taken an Anti-Depressant detail, 2014

Incidentally aside from photographs rendering her an artist and art object amongst and inside her works, the show contains none of her painted self portraits as Kusama remains as a figure whose work becomes her. In this regard it is not impossible to assert your own selfies with her work may also act as Kusama’s portraits.

Finally the exhibit rewards visitors at their last stop with the Obliteration Room furnished through Ikea and staff donations.  Here you are welcome to sit, play piano and touch touch touch, untimed, while you leave your own sticker selves behind.  Remember to look everywhere and acknowledge the interactions inadvertently engaged in one another’s absence and presence.

Overall traversing Infinity Mirrors in its closing week will be strenuous for all involved, but consider your repetitions as her own to gain a sense of process and purpose. This may be the only iteration to have all five rooms and definitely the only with free tickets, so come for the rooms but stay  for the evolution. With only 20 to 30 seconds at infinity, look and let go before you take a picture: become impermanent, transcend to nothing, space and then continuance. This is the infinite, the obliteration in which we all methodically take part of as soon and we arrive to the Hirshhorn.

Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009

A smile becomes painful watching visitors almost push past each other to enter infinity, faces as phones, dismissive towards their group, concerned only with the experience that is captured. However more often than not, when they are birthed back to reality seconds later, strangers have found relation: exchanging cameras with one another, aiding in granting each other a meaningful experience-whatever that may be-remembering to look and continuing conversation beyond the obliteration, having been pushed to find use in community again.


Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors
February 28-May 14
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
Photographs provided by Hirshhorn Museum & writer
Amanda Acosta

Amanda Acosta

Amanda Acosta holds a Bachelor’s in Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University and works at the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C.

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