Monday, April 30, 2018

Yayoi Kusama at the AGO - Feel Forever (or at least as long as it takes to get a selfie)

When it comes to visual art, it seems the preference of the current social media generation is for an experience that is both participatory, and instagram-worthy.   There could not be a better example of this than the exhibit Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. 

The AGO began promoting the heck out of this show last year, and the frenzy that has resulted around getting tickets has made the exhibit Toronto's MUST SEE experience of 2018 (Toronto is the only Canadian stop on the tour).  I was familiar with Kusama's work before the show had been announced, and I admit I got caught up in the hoopla.  I got a membership to the AGO and when member's tickets went on sale in December, I waited 5 hours in a "virtual waiting room" to snag a coveted ticket. And that was just the start of the waiting I would have to do in order to see the show.

Yayoi Kusama - source

So who is Yayoi Kusama?  The 89 year old Japanese artist, is the current "it girl" of the art world when it comes to pulling in viewers.   You may only know her as the woman who loves polka dots and pumpkins, and wears bright orange, pink or red wigs.   The contemporary artist works in the mediums of painting, sculpture, collage, film, poetry and fiction and has been called a "worldwide phenomenon".   In 1993 Kusama became the first woman to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale.

The prevailing themes of Kusuma's art grew out of what could easily be called a very difficult childhood.  She began experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations as a young child, which continued into adulthood.  The themes of repetition, obsession, obliteration, infinity, and mortality which appear in her art today can be traced back to the drawing she made as a child trying to cope with her illness.   In her early 20's she was diagnosed with cenesthophathy, a syndrome where patients complain of abnormal or strange body sensations which are medically unexplainable.  When her illness got worse, she voluntarily moved into a mental institution, where she has lived, by choice for the last 50 years, leaving to work during the day in her studio which is located within walking distance. 

There is no mention made of Kusama's mental illness in the promotional material produced by the AGO, nor in the historical photos, quotes and information tidbits scattered around the gallery to give you something to read while you are waiting in line.  The exhibit is curated by Mika Yoshitake, an expert on Japanese Contemporary Art, and when she was asked in an interview why there was not more focus on the role that Kusama's illness plays in her art, Yoshitake said she preferred to have the work speak for itself instead of filtering it through Kusama's personal struggles.  I think there was a missed opportunity to use her illness as a catalyst for a connection with the larger community during the exhibit run.

Kusama studied art in Japan, and to escape the oppression of her family, who did not want her to be a artist, she moved to the United States in 1957, first living in Seattle, and then moving to New York in 1958.  Her time in New York was spent living in poverty, and moving in the same circles as artist like Andy Warhol.   She began making what would be later known as her "net" paintings, covering great expanses of canvas with small, comma-like strokes. 

An infinity net painting from 1961.  Instead of painting coloured arcs on a dark background, as she did in her earlier net paintings, Kusama painted black "scales" on a red background, giving the painting a snakeskin-like surface.

Dots Obsession XZQBA from 2007

 The painting above combines the monocromatic colour scheme of Kusuma's early Net paintings with the iconic polka dots she later became synonymous with.

I asked another woman at the exhibit to take a photo of me next to a portrait of Kusama from the late 60's - early 70's. 
photo from a rooftop performance in New York in 1970

While in the United States in the 1960's, Kusama organized "Happenings", in protest of the Vietnam war, in which she promoted a sense of connection through "self obliteration".   Kusama and other participants would paint polka dots on each other's naked bodies with the intent to create a kind of equality and obliterate the ego .

 Detail of Ennui from 1976 featuring soft phallic sculptures and shoes, coated with silver paint
Sculptures in the shape of phalluses appear frequently in Kusama's art - when she was a child, her mother suspected that her father was having an affair, and forced young Yayoi to spy on him and his lover, which left her with a great fear and anxiety about sex.  In the 1960's, as a form of self-therapy, Kusama began making phallic "soft sculptures" which she then used to cover items such as a rowboat, and a baby carriage.

Life (Repetitive Vision), from 1998 features a "garden" of phallic soft sculptures

The exhibit includes some of Kusama's early works on paper, paintings, collages and sculptures, but the focus is on her celebrated "Infinity Mirror Rooms".  The Infinity rooms evolved from Kusama's philosophy of obliteration and her self-proclaimed "huge adoration for the concept of infinity".  When in one of the small mirrored rooms (there are six in the exhibit) surrounded by polka dot phalluses, multi-coloured tiny lights, or illuminated polka-dotted pumpkins, you can see yourself recede into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until eventually you disappear.  

Phalli's Field (and an infinite number of Shelleys)

Phalli's field, the oldest infinity room in the exhibit, was Kusama's first use of mirrors as a device for repetition.  She has said she grew tired of sewing the red polka dot phalluses and decided to use the mirrors to create the illusion of an endless field of them.   This is the first infinity room that a visitor to the exhibit enters, and knowing that I could spend only 20 seconds in the room I had a moment of panic:  Do I take a photo of the room? Do I try to just take it all in with my eyes? How do I best capture this moment?  I did end up taking a photo (see above).

 Love Forever, Infinity Room

Love Forever is a hexagonal shaped room, mirrored on all sides, with peepholes that allow you and a second viewer on the other side to see yourselves repeated into infinity.  That's me, holding my camera in my hand in the middle square near the top of the photo.

Dots Obsession - Love Transformed into Dots 2007
A room filled with giant, inflated pink and black polka dotted vinyl balls on the floor and suspended from the ceiling pretty much begs you to roll them around and bump up against them, but alas, the signs said "don't touch the artwork".  I did bump into one of the ones on the floor by accident, causing it to move towards me, and I looked around to make sure no one thought I was trying to cause trouble.   The largest ball contained a small infinity room of smaller versions of itself, but I spent my allowed 20 seconds taking a requested photo of two women in the room with me, so I don't remember much about it.  More interesting was a smaller hard plastic ball with a peephole that allowed you to view a silver orb suspended inside it...

There was no lineup to look inside the ball, so I was able to look at the fascinating kaleidoscope of small silver orbs for almost as long as I wanted.    This may be why this was one of my favourite pieces in the show.   

Photos do not capture the magic of what you see when you are inside one of the infinity rooms; they have to be experienced in person.  Visitors were not allowed to take photos inside my favourite of the infinity rooms, All The Eternal Love I Have For The Pumpkins (a gallery volunteer joined you in the room to ensure you didn't try to sneak a selfie), and for me it was the most enjoyable experience, partly because you were allowed 10 extra seconds in this one, and also because there was nothing to distract you from the fairy tale scene before you.  The darker, upside-down view of the polka dotted pumpkins on the mirrored ceiling was just as fascinating as the happier, brighter ones in front and below you.  I could have easily remained entranced for several minutes if we hadn't been informed that "time's up"! 

The exhibit includes works from the artist's most recent painting series My Eternal Soul (2009 - present).  The paintings incorporate vibrant colours and Kusama's signature polka dot motif along with amoeba and eye-shaped forms, and the titles reference love, life, birth and death.  Boldly colourful sculptures accompany the paintings.  It was disappointing to see that many viewers ignored the other artworks in the exhibit in an effort to get a perfect selfie in one of the mirror rooms.

 Obliteration Room

Viewer participation reaches a peak in the Obliteration Room, which starts out as a large, pure white room and "exterior" courtyard, complete with white furniture and household items.  During the run of the exhibit, viewers are invited to cover the surfaces in the rooms with colourful polka dot stickers provided by the gallery.  And afterwards, you can exit through the gift shop where you can satisfy your craving for all the polka dot-covered merchandise you could ever imagine.

Narcissus Garden

In addition to the two floors of the gallery devoted to the Infinity Mirrors exhibit, the AGO has also included the additional installation of Kusama's Narcissus Garden.  1,300 stainless steel balls cover the floor of the Signy-Eaton Gallery.  The work was created in 1966 and originally installed at the Venice Biennale that year along with a sign reading "Your Narcissism for Sale", indicating the balls were for sale at $2 each.

"The silver ball is also representative of the moon, of sunshine, of peace.  In essence it symbolizes
the union of man and nature.  When the people see their own reflection multiplied to infinity they 
then sense that there is no limit to man's ability to project himself into endless space."
Yayoi Kusama, 1966

As I came to the end of the exhibit, I asked myself if all the waiting was worth it.  I had the extra challenge of having come down with a stomach bug the night before, which meant an added stress of knowing where the closest washroom was at all times.  The art itself is in turns fascinating, mesmerizing, and often beautiful, and given that the opportunity to experience the exhibit is not available to everyone, I was glad I was able to see it in person.  However, that said, it was definitely not one of my best viewing experiences.  I do not like being told how long I am allowed to look at a piece of art, and this was the major quibble I had with the exhibit .   I could understand, and deal with, the lineups to get into the show, and the lineups to enter each of the infinity rooms, but 20 seconds is absolutely not enough time to enjoy, and register the experience, especially when you are forced to share a small space with two other people, at least one of whom is busy snapping photos.  I realize that the more time people are allowed to spend in the rooms, the longer the lineups to get in, but I wonder how I would have felt about the experience had I been able to spend 45 seconds to a minute in each room.   

Yayoi Kusuma: Infinity Mirrors is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 27th.  Good luck getting a ticket - aside from a few "same day" tickets that may be available, they're all sold out.


  1. Thanks for this synopsis of your visit, Shelley! I didn't end up getting a ticket for the show because of all the waiting I was told I'd have to do--to get the ticket, to see the show itself, etc.--but now I'm wondering if I shouldn't try. Love the photos! The show really does look magical.

    1. Apparently the AGO is extending their hours to midnight on the last two weekends of the show and tickets for those times will be available on a first come-first served basis at 10 am on the same day. Info is on their website. It is worth seeing if you can get in.

  2. That looks like an amazing exhibit! I really appreciate your thorough review of your experience. Although our local AG is rinky-dink, it does have the added advantage of being really able to view at your leisure. Gorgeous pictures, Shelley. I agree, the artist's mental health is an important influence and should have been part of the exhibit material. Weird.

  3. I have been a big fan of her work for some time and loved this show. We went into most of the infinity rooms but I preferred the other works. It only took me five minutes online to get my tickets. Great article Shelley.

  4. I was pretty lucky getting my tickets as it was automated. They contacted me after about 30 minutes and I was able to purchase them. Initially I'd tried to buy them prior the show and after you told me about your experience I gave up. I'm glad I tried again after the show had been open for a while.

    Loved your recap and I agree that they should have mentioned her illness. That is how and why she views the world the way she does.

    I'm glad I went to this exhibit. It was annoying waiting in line but I felt the experience was worth it.


  5. I'd never heard of Kusama until I read Suzanne's post. She's a fascinating woman and her art is thought-provoking and memorable which makes her a big hit in my book.
    Love that picture of you in your spotty jeans mirroring =her catsuit, that's art! xxx

  6. I want to go to a show so fucking bad!!!!!!

  7. psst, I see those big polka dot jeans you have on! Very cool (and, of course, appropriate). What a great show to see. But better you than me. I couldn't tolerate the regimented plow-through of the viewers. I know it's something that needs to be experienced rather than seen in pictures, but not like it's being orchestrated. The fact that the curator chose to eliminate any reference to her life long mental illness seems like a gross omission of the artist's self and her creative process. Anyway, thanks very much for your great report, Shelley.

    1. The polka dots ended up looking quite cool on the jeans, if only the jeans fit me better. Lesson learned - make sure you like how something fits before spending hours embellishing it!

  8. Thanks for the really great review Shelley. I tried but couldn't get tix. So glad to be able to live it through you.

  9. what a fascinating exhibition, I would like to see it, but I think that having a limited time to watch every art piece would stress me!
    I think that her personality and work are both captivating.
    Glad you enjoyed it (and hope you're feeling better)