Kusama's Mirror Game

When Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster exhibition Infinity Mirrors opened at Seattle Art Museum, a 21st-century permutation of Shakespeare’s famous query rippled through the city via social media: “To selfie or not to selfie?”

As with Hamlet, visitors to Infinity Mirrors can expect inertia and idling; limited tickets are available on-site, but even scheduled pass-holders might encounter lines and bottlenecks. They’ll also find that fixating on this selfie-conundrum means sacrificing more interesting questions. To those who look beyond the flickering, fun-fair lights, a darker and existential tale unfolds.

However deceivingly cheerful, Kusama’s work deals with trauma and suicide. A room filled with pink balloons—with polkadots! And balloons in the balloons!—clashes with the small video screen showing Kusama performing her “Song of a Manhattan Suicide addict.” “Swallow antidepressants and it will be gone,” she sings. “Tear down the gate of hallucinations/Amidst the agony of flowers, the present never ends.”

Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama has always been the odd one out. Growing up in an affluent family, her artistic aspirations were discouraged by her abusive mother, who pushed for arranged marriages. This pressure, as well as a traumatic event, gave Kusama a “lifelong abhorrence of sex.”

She moved to Seattle in the late 1950s, relocating to New York soon after. Upon arrival, she went straight to the top of the Empire State Building, looked out over the city and promised herself to become a star. She would go on to do exactly that.

Kusama was also the odd one out in the predominantly white, male avant-garde, often denied the same respect her male colleagues were afforded. Not long after she debuted her soft sculptures—furniture covered in phallus-shaped protuberances made from stuffed cloth—Claes Oldenburg did something similar.

A year later, Kusama debuted a boat covered in phallus-shaped protuberances made from stuffed cloth, on view at SAM in a silver version, bright lights shedding ominous shadows in between the shapes. In the original showing, Kusama covered the ceiling and walls with 999 black and white posters of the boat to create a seasickness-inducing spectacle. When pop-art icon Andy Warhol debuted his own serial cow-posters, it was “plainly an appropriation,” says Kusama. It’s no surprise then that Lucas Samaras was applauded for his mirror room a year after Kusama had debuted hers, “Phalli’s Field.”

At SAM, “Phalli’s Field” is the first Mirror Room visitors encounter. Inside, a field of red-dotted Barbapapas stretch out under a bright ceiling. Standing on a white platform preventing me from approaching the tubers, I think back to Kusama hoping people would walk through the “phallus meadow” barefoot, experiencing their own bodies and movements as part of the sculpture.

But let’s be real. The tubers are penises. Kusama objectified them into these toy-ish gadgets because penises repulse her. In reproducing them again and again she became their master. It was also a way to make herself disappear. She wanted to bury herself in the process of accumulation. A mirror reflecting the accumulation in infinity only made “self-obliteration” easier.

And yet, she desired fame. Kusama gained notoriety in the ‘60s, with nude happenings and polkadots, condemnation of presidents and Wall Street suits. Some criticized her for being too adept at self-promotion. But she kept working until she moved back to Japan in the ‘70s and suffered a mental breakdown, after which she checked into a mental hospital.

Today, Kusama still suffers from the visual and aural hallucinations of her youth. She’s said that not a day has passed without thinking about suicide, and so “self-obliteration” reverberates differently. Of course, framing Kusama in this allegorical light is never completely innocent. Framing the story as the “artist-in-mental-hospital-who-makes-art-as-therapy” robs her of nuance and due credit.

Let’s give her more credit, then. Her accumulations and mirror rooms were a novelty in the 1960s. In the new millennium, the mirrors became something else. The visitors of the Yokohama Triennial in 2001, for example, found their faces reflected in a mirrored room with 1,500 metallic mirror balls. Kusama called it “Endless Narcissus Show.” It should be Infinity Mirrors’ hashtag.

Maybe Kusama, intentionally or not, has been mirroring back to us what we created, a world of endless reflections of the same thing. She plays the leading role in this society of the spectacle. In November, wax museum Madame Tussauds Hong Kong opened up a polka-dotted “artistic themed” Kusama “zone.” One wonders where the art ends and her life, and the spectacle, begins. Critics have argued that she turned her mental illness into a spectacle, too. I don’t agree. The more interesting question though: If your antidote is turned into an art-world or Instagram commodity, how effective is it? And if you place the visitor in front of the mirror and it spins out of control, who’s to blame? In this uncertainty the show becomes truly interesting.

Still, the struggles she voices are real. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., and many people can’t afford mental health care like Kusama can.

That’s partly why a different room in the exhibit, the “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” is the most striking, and with all of the accumulated works and collages, is the reason you should visit Infinity Mirrors. Yellow lanterns flicker in soft unison while the enveloping darkness renders the viewer’s body a silhouette. The lights eventually fade out in complete darkness. After what feels like a an extremely long short time, they turn on again, as if Kusama has chosen to be instead of not to be.

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors runs through Sept. 10 at Seattle Art Museum. 

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