An Eternal Dichotomy: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms

Work that endures is always capable of an infinite and plastic ambiguity; it is all things to all men, […]; it is a mirror that reflects the reader’s own features and it is also a map of the world.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama

In the last few years Yayoi Kusama’s fame has increased exponentially. Already known in the art world for her practice in the late fifties and sixties, she has suddenly made a swooping triumphant return on the art scene, attracting the attention. What is even more interesting is that not only her pieces will entice art connoisseurs who are probably perfectly able to explain why her works are now selling for incredibly higher amounts than they were ten years ago (Artnet), but they are also extremely popular among the general public. What is all the fuss really about? At this point everyone who has an Instagram or Facebook account is very likely to have seen at least one picture of one someone standing in what appears to be an alternate reality made of darkness and lights. This is the effect that Kusama’s Infinity Rooms create. Small, intimate rooms where the walls and ceiling are covered in mirrors and lights or luminous objects are inserted, rendering for the viewer the sensation of being in a different universe. These rooms are indeed so popular that a competition even took place for Airbnb hosts in London to have the room they rent re-designed by Kusama. Artnet

 

All of this is twirling in my mind as I stand in a long line that, I am informed by the Victoria Mirò’s Gallery staff, is normal as “this is the busiest time of the week” (a Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m.!) at the new Yayoi Kusama exhibition. As I ask myself if this is just a justification they give the public to avoid complains or if Wednesday afternoons have become the new “cool” time to show up and I have missed the memo, yet another staff member announces that no more than two people are allowed inside All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins at a time and that each groups has twenty seconds in the room. I smile at the “threat” until I see the chronometer in her hand as she stands outside the door of the installation. I cannot help but to arrogantly think to myself that the only reason that I will only have twenty seconds in the room is that too many people showed up just to take a picture of themselves in it and post it on social media, demonstrating to the world that they are intellectuals because they have witnessed the greatness of Yayoi Kusama’s work first hand. 

Chandelier of Grief By Yayoi Kusama

Chandelier of Grief By Yayoi Kusama

My hypocrisy does not hit me until the young woman opens the door and I launch myself in the room, lie on the floor and take a picture of my own reflection on the ceiling because “probably not many people have thought of that particular shot.” I take a couple more shots from different angles and it suddenly hits me. My reflections all around me, standing and looking at me, photographing me back. Why am I spending these twenty seconds taking pictures instead of enjoying the experience itself? The door opens. My time is done. Chandelier of Grief, another Infinity Room, reveals itself a completely different piece. It is, as suggested by the title, a much darker and unsettling environment than the more playful All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins and yet exploring it causes just as intense a sensation. This time I am not alone in the room and I am almost glad I have a companion that, despite the fact that she’s a stranger, is there with me as the chandelier menacingly hovers over us beaming of a cold light, partly its own and partly reflected, and multiplies itself infinite times into the nothingness of a completely black surrounding. The unpredictability of the weather denies us Wednesday-afternoon crowd the opportunity to experience Where the Lights in My Heart Go, the third Infinity Room in the exhibition. Nonetheless, exiting the building and escaping to the garden where dozens of stainless steel spheres, Narcissus Garden, float languidly in the pond is a relief.

A visit to the “cool” Yayoi Kusama exhibit turned into an opportunity for absorption in deep thoughts. I cannot help but think about how closely Narcissus’ irrational love with himself and his ultimate demise because of it resembles our society’s focus on one’s appearances and the establishment of their value as a human being based on their social media presence. I look at myself in these mirrored rooms and see that I too am not immune from this.

Narcissus Garden Go By Yayoi Kusama

Narcissus Garden Go By Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s Infinity Rooms are wonderfully dichotomous works of art. They are beautiful and unsettling at the same time, playful and yet obscure. They are visually mesmerizing, of course. However, the observation of one’s own visual appearance seems to spark a contemplation of their inner reflection. In a room full of mirrors one cannot escape one’s own image and the considerations that result from this examination. Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of these rooms is that they are eternal. They will always assume a different meaning and cause different sensations not only from person to person, but also for each individual who might revisit them because as one progresses in life they will probably react differently to their visual and mental reflection when in the rooms. They are “all things to all men, […] a mirror that reflects the [viewer’s] own features and [they are] also a map of the world,” and therefore will endure the passing of time, if we are to trust Jorge Luis Borges’ prediction.

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Images courtesy of Giovanna Violi, MA

More on Yayoi Kusama | Victoria Mirò Gallery 

Art as Catalyst: Sokari Douglas Camp

Blind Love and Grace (detail) by Sokari Douglas Camp

Blind Love and Grace (detail) by Sokari Douglas Camp

“You say that anyone would recognize this painting but I have never seen it before in my life.” The comment comes from a young woman as Gerard Houghton, Director of Special Projects at the October Gallery in London, shows Botticelli's Primavera. The setting: a talk with artist Sokari Douglas Camp about her latest exhibition at the October Gallery bearing the same title as the Italian painter's masterpiece. A question sparks to mind immediately: does it really matter whether one knows the Botticelli in order for them to appreciate Douglas Camp's pieces?

Entering the October Gallery, one is welcomed by a suffused light reflected on a multitude of textural metallic surfaces. Indeed, steel sculpture is Douglas Camp's chosen medium with casual inclusion of color, perhaps in that same spirit of Spring (in Italian, “Primavera”) that pervades the atmosphere of the exhibition. As mentioned by Houghton, all of the various figures from Botticelli's Primavera are re-proposed here in a contemporary key. The busts of two pairs of lovers (Lovers Whispering and Whispering and Blowing) are shown in intimate gestures. The artist's ability allows her to ply the steel into ever so graceful and delicate details that truly give the sense of lovers sharing a secret, avoiding the horror of the story of rape of Zephyros and Chloris, the respective characters in the Botticelli.

Europe Supported by Africa and America by Sokari Douglas Camp

Europe Supported by Africa and America by Sokari Douglas Camp

Primavera, the piece corresponding to Flora in the Botticelli, whose steel garment defies one's expectation of heaviness and solidity that metal usually connotes to show, in fact, a lightness such that her dress seems to flow in the wind. Enriched with a mixture of colorful flowers and toy cars, she is a perfect equilibrium between human nature and technology, such that she could have perhaps fitted on the red carpet of this year's man-v.-machine-themed Met Gala. To her right is the monumental composition of Blind Love and Grace, in which the artist cleverly uses empty oil barrels to create a structural background for the figures of what in Botticelli's painting would have been Venus and Cupid. An outstanding exercise in balancing the elements of the piece, Love floats in the air right above the figure of Grace which is adorned with red garments, maintaining Botticelli's color palette, yet departing from his style in that both the dress and the headdress are typically African.

Similarly, the three figures of Europe Supported by Africa and America, while exhibiting a similar composition to the homonymous work by William Blake, does differ from it, yet again, in the choice of clothing. As with Primavera and Blind Love and Grace, the three women in this sculpture are wearing colorful and patterned clothing (inspired by the respective continents they represent). Interestingly, the garland they hold, while reflecting the original piece's detail, presents a nozzle (from a fuel dispenser) at one extremity. This seems to be yet another reference, as the oil barrels are, to the situation of the Niger Delta, area in which the artist was born and which is still facing major problems relating to oil companies' operations.

Walworth Ladies by Sokari Douglas Camp

Walworth Ladies by Sokari Douglas Camp

An additional reflection upon the artist's culture of origin is a set of six figurines each dressed with different typical African clothing, Walworth Ladies. Lastly, the exhibition is completed by two pieces, both apparently inspired by the figure of Mercury in Botticelli's work. Both Prick Gun and Posing with a Gun portray a macho attitude as the artist explains, which she clearly (given the title) criticizes. 

Considering all of these aspects, does one actually need to be familiar with Botticelli's Primavera to be able to appreciate Douglas Camp's Primavera exhibition? Truthfully, Douglas Camp did draw inspiration from the piece and anyone who is familiar with it can see the correlation between the two. It is also evident, however, that her works present several elements that are unique to her style and discourse, highlighting aspects of her personal story as well as causes she is dedicated to. The rendering of Kalabari and other African style dresses clearly has an importance for her in terms of her own heritage, yet they also constitute the chance to discuss about standards or beauty and how the fashion industry has long had and, to an extent, still has Western standards. It is still uncommon for a woman to choose steel sculpture as her favorite medium of artistic expression. This is, yet again, an added layer of understanding that one can appreciate while observing her work. When introducing referencing to the oil industry, she introduces an element of environmental and humanitarian awareness and commentary into her art. Violence, as has been mentioned, is also a theme treated in the exhibition. While she talks, she mentions the fact that in her artistic practice she is moved and inspired by a continuous conversation within herself.

Europe Supported by Africa and America (as seen through Blind Love and Grace) by Sokari Douglas Camp

Europe Supported by Africa and America (as seen through Blind Love and Grace) by Sokari Douglas Camp

This is the power of her pieces, they can spark a conversation within the viewer and among different viewers. There is such a multitude of layers of understanding, of interpretation of her pieces, that one could appreciate them and reflect upon them, whatever their knowledge (or lack thereof) of Italian Renaissance Art History might be. Douglas Camp seems to unite elements of her personal experience with aspects of nowadays' sociopolitical reality, utilizing at the same time inspiration from her exposure to Italian art, and bringing everything together in her astonishingly masterful metallic sculptures to start a conversation. She makes the viewer aware of issues they might or might not already know about, usually without directly commenting on them, but allowing him or her to inform themselves and formulate their own opinion. She amazes the public by delicately yet firmly sparking a conversation, her work is a catalyst for discussion and, possibly, change.

All images courtesy of Giovanna Violi, MA

More on Sokari | October Gallery

POMP

By Giovanna Violi, MA |  April 2016

Existentialism II by Graham Clemie | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Existentialism II by Graham Clemie | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

“It cannot be,” I tell myself looking at the decrepit construction in front of me, wondering if I have yet again fallen victim of my bad sense of direction. I have been invited to a private view of POMP, a new temporary exhibition born from a collaboration between Simon Poole’s Osterly and artist Timothy Holt. “An art exhibition here?” My bewilderment, stemming from numerous visits to white-cube-type galleries and grand museums, is dissipated by the figure of Mr. Poole now standing on the front step and inviting me to start exploring the show. I am therefore led into a dark corridor and suddenly have the sensation of having entered the virtual reality of one of those video games in which the player roams a desolated planet earth, fallen victim to a disease outbreak of sort, trying to survive and save the few human beings left. However, I am quickly brought back to reality, or perhaps transported to another world entirely, by the sight of extraordinary art works standing out from the skeleton of the forsaken building. 

The first piece I lay my eyes on is a T-shaped structure whose mirroring surface reflects my image back to me as I stand right in front of it. The words “reality is too fake” scroll down the LED sign assembled in Graham Clemie’s Existentialism II’s upper portion. Ironically, a brief conversation with the artist himself unveils that the quote comes from a documentary about video game addiction (which I later find out to be Web Junkie by filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia). While my mind lingers among the implications of these counterintuitive words and of the significance of my reflection, as well as Mr. Poole’s, in the piece, I notice another work of art placed right behind us on the floor of the next room. As the meticulous information hand-out given to me by Mr. Holt informs me, this is Richard Ducker’s Dark Matter, a creation whose black hue belongs to the general palette of the peculiar venue yet the perfection of its sharp geometric edges make it stand out from the devastated “imperfect” environment. A glimpse of red swiftly catches my attention as I enter yet another room. Alice Steffen’s The Woman of Chelsea, emerges from its dimly-lit niche. The plant-like elements, consisting of fake red nails, eyelashes and diamantes stem out of piles of black glitter placed on the floor.

Dark Matter 6 by Richard Ducker | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Dark Matter 6 by Richard Ducker Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Still astonished by the amount of time and patience that assembling such a visually stunning display must have taken; I adventure upstairs where I encounter Catriona Robertson’s Connected. As the artist herself explains to me, the process of creation of this art work was quite lengthy and complex. Nevertheless, the three perfectly-shaped blocks of cement linked by wires that constitute it display exceptional simplicity of form, which matches the austerity of the room in which it is shown. This is a perfect example of a general characteristic observed in the exhibition: the ability of the artists to show works that in an almost mysterious way seem to be inherent to the venue. The collaboration of artists and curators (Timothy Holt, Cat Madden and Amy Turnbull) has produced here a brilliant show in which a harmonious relation can be observed both among the different objects and between each object and its location. While the precious artwork stands out in contrast with the humble nature of the setting, it contemporarily seems to be an integral part of it, as if the artists’ creations had always been there since the house was built. 

This interesting interplay of venue and object is yet again evident in Patrick Colhoun’s Inherited Addiction (Various). In this case elements made of colourful ceramic and held together by hosiery compose the upper half of a repeated human head, seemingly ascending (or descending) from the floorboards. A mirror leaning on a wall doubles the impact of the piece. While observing the deaf and mute (because ears and mouths were not moulded on them) elements, Clare Mitten’s YMMF II catches my attention. The combination of 2D and 3D elements and the melange of not only media but also techniques (painting, collage, sculpture) bring to life a set of gears which unite to form a machine-looking object whose nature is not clear to me, yet I am almost convinced it might suddenly be activated and start moving. 

Ilmenite City by Amy Stephens | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Ilmenite City by Amy Stephens | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

The adjacent building, Safehouse 1, also emanates an aura of abandonment and hosts another set of thought-provoking art works. As we walk through the door, Mr. Poole and I are immediately attracted to Ben Woodeson and Hangover. Two imposing sheets of brass hang in the open space linking the ground and first floors. One is held in position by a strap of (Omni Directional), the other appears to have been gently placed on one of the wooden beams belonging to the skeleton of the dilapidated house. I allow myself to playfully experiment with the changes in my reflection into the brass sheets as I move around them, almost matching my movements to the sound of Graham Hudson’s 100 lso - F2.0 - 1_160s playing from the front of the house, as now the sun is setting, illuminating with its lights the whole space. I cannot help but notice that, despite their significant size, Woodeson’s sculptures radiate a sense of grace and serenity which, once again, suggests the idea that they might have been here all along in a house built around them, for them. 

As I enter a much darker zone towards the back of the building, I am met by Rebecca Moss’ Experiments in Flying and Falling playing on a TV screen in a continuous loop. In the compilations of videos she explores artificial materials mostly within the context of natural settings through quasi-scientific procedures. It seems quite fitting that there would be a piece dedicated to analysing materials, considering that the whole exhibition appears to be, among other things, an experimentation with materials of every sort. Amy Stephens’ sculptures, Ilmenite City (Series), Trigonal, and Sand are indeed a great example of this very concept. Made of powder coated stainless steel and other components, they assume geometric shapes, reminding me of futuristic cities that could fit well in a science fiction (or perhaps another video game?) scenario, an effect which is nothing but amplified by their shadows cast on the walls of the first floor. 

Last but not least I come into a room at which I had only glanced on my way up from the ground floor. Here I find myself in a narrow elongated room with a few seemingly innocuous black plastic bags. As I ponder on the possible meaning of the installation, a young lady “activates” the bags which start roaming the room as if on wheels. The other viewers and I take just a moment to recover from the surprise and where before there was mostly silence and concentration, there is now lively chatter, as if the animation of Timothy Holt’s Bags for Life had awaked us as well. Indeed, perhaps this is the art work with which I observed more people interact, to the point that even a couple of children started running after the bags, changing their trajectory, and laughing all the while. 

100 Iso - F2.0 - 1_160s by Graham Hudson |  Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

100 Iso - F2.0 - 1_160s by Graham Hudson |  Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

On this note, I would like to point out one of the features that render this exhibition innovative. While in most instances I have witnessed art shows are reserved for a selected few and, in the case of contemporary art specifically, are often branded by many as a hipster alternative to traditional forms of social and cultural activities, this exhibition was designed by its organisers to welcome anybody and to be a chance for exploration, reflection and education. In fact, I am told that Phoebe Gardiner conducted workshops for POMP that saw the participation of people of any age. This is of course not to criticise more conventional art venues, which also offer educational opportunities. What I mean is that it is a pleasure to see that a significant effort was made to render art and particularly contemporary art which is unfortunately often conceived as perhaps too cryptic or enigmatic for the larger crowds to appreciate it, truly attainable to all regardless of their pre-existing knowledge or experience of art itself. 

Connected by Catriona Robertson | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Connected by Catriona Robertson | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

Having been lucky enough to see the show, I can honestly say that it was refreshing to see something new and different. After all, the art world has always progressed throughout histories thanks to the visionary ideas of artists and art professionals who dared to create something new. It is my belief that this type of innovation took place in POMP. The curators, the artists and Osterly (which helped fund the project) all came together to create a unique experience, rendered even rarer by the limited time window during which it was available. The choice of such an atypical and, dare I say it, whimsical venue, in ironic contrast yet perfectly complementing the title of the show, was essential in differentiating this display from any other and highlighting the works presented in it. Both the individual and collective display of the art pieces truly augmented the overall impact of POMP.

The Woman of Chelsea (detail) by Alice Steffen | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

The Woman of Chelsea (detail) by Alice Steffen | Photo courtesy of Samantha Wheelwright

The idea to create a “mobile” gallery on which Holt and Poole are working is extraordinary and might revolutionise the way we conceive of experiencing art. They are redirecting the public’s attention from the white-cube-type gallery, which although for certain aspects effective and once considered innovative has now become the standard to be transcended, to venues deemed unlikely up to now. This might have a double effect of shocking (whether is a positive or negative way) the art aficionados crowd while at the same time democratising, in a sense, the display of art. In other words, this new project might render the art works more unique, in the sense that they would be displayed in a determined place for only a certain amount of time, but at the same time more attainable to anybody considering that a show might pop-up in the most unexpected places. When I avidly ask both Holt and Poole “what next?” I am reassured that they might surprise us with a new project in the near future. I can honestly say, I cannot wait to see with what they will amaze us this time. 

 

About POMP | Osterly | Timothy Holt | Exhibition Images