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.
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.
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.
Images courtesy of Giovanna Violi, MA