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Yayoi Kusama’s Tate Modern exhibition hits the reflective spot

Michèle Woodger

The famous Japanese artist’s enclosing, reflective Infinity Mirror Rooms create a counter-intuitive sense of calm and space

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life 2011/2017, Tate
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room - Filled with the Brilliance of Life 2011/2017, Tate Credit: Presented by the artist, Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro 2015, accessioned 2019 © YAYOI KUSAMA

In the past year, how many of us have found ourselves – like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper – driven to the brink of insanity from staring at the same four walls, maddened by the pattern repeat? How many hours have we misspent in unhealthy introspection? How many Instagram images have we consumed? How little Vitamin D? After a claustrophobic winter, you may well question why I opted to spend my first free sunny day inside a large reflective box, but such is my perverse logic: I couldn’t pass up the rare opportunity to view two of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, which are finally open at the Tate Modern (until 27 March 2022).

Instantly recognisable from the polka dots with which she obsessively peppers her artwork, clothes and living environment, Kusama is a prolific and distinctive contemporary artist. Born in 1929 in pre-war Japan, which was dominated at the time by nationalistic politics, the young Kusama took up art against familial and societal expectations. The 1960s she spent at the forefront of New York’s vibrant arts scene; she had moved to the USA in search of ‘unlimited freedom, and a wider world’ but was again to encounter social limitations; it was there that, in response to the definitions imposed on her by gender and racial stereotyping, she began to create a distinct persona for herself – an enduring personal brand. ‘I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot,’ she claimed.

Yet in parallel with her artistic success is Kusama’s all-consuming struggle with mental health, which cannot be disassociated from her work. In 1973 she returned to Japan, and, after experiencing continued acute hallucinations, checked herself into a Tokyo psychiatric hospital in 1977; she still lives there and creates work from a nearby studio. Kusama’s practice is wide-ranging, encompassing novels, poetry, painting, performative artwork and immersive installations, including 20 or so infinity mirror rooms, created over the decades. These spaces transport the viewer-participant into Kusama’s strange interior world.

Alongside two of these rooms ­– Chandelier of Grief (2016) and Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2012) – the exhibition comprises several photographic series, two video presentations of archive footage, and a new sculptural piece, ‘The Universe as Seen from the Stairway to Heaven’. This latter invites the viewer to look through circular windows into a dark cubic space, within which reflections of one’s face appear to float among myriad coloured bubbles. The sculpture recalls her first mirror installation, Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show (1966) and The Passing Winter (2015), a mirror room filled with pink circles (not on display); the concepts of spatial experimentation and altered perceptions are without doubt lifelong obsessions.

Yayoi Kusama, Chandelier of Grief 2016/2018, Tate
Yayoi Kusama, Chandelier of Grief 2016/2018, Tate Credit: Presented by a private collector, New York 2019 © YAYOI KUSAMA

Walking Piece (1966) is a performative artwork in which Kusama is captured in a sequence of images, shot by photographer Eikoh Hosoe. She stages herself walking through New York City in traditional kimono and parasol. Using a fish eye lens, the images are distorted, contributing to an impression of alienation and warped perspective. This is the artist’s early response to gender and racial profiling, emphasising the incongruity and loneliness of her experience of New York’s urban environment.

But the mirror rooms are the mainstay of the otherwise small exhibition. Chandelier of Grief appears externally as a white hexagonal structure, 4m high. I enter through a sliding door which closes behind me, leaving me alone in a mirrored room with nothing but a baroque-style chandelier in a hexagonal glass case at the centre. The chandelier rotates and flickers, its high position draws my gaze upwards, its crystals reflect endlessly in all directions. I have the mesmerising sensation of dwelling inside a kaleidoscope. The gallery attendant warned me before I entered that if I needed to exit, I could tap lightly on the door to be released, and should I feel giddy, to use the floor to orientate myself. An ominous beginning, suggesting that sensory discomfort could be a common response. But I experienced none of this vertiginous destabilisation, rather, I felt strangely calm in the solitude of my prismatic chamber. The title is melancholic – the work is ostensibly an exploration of the psychological and emotional state of mourning – yet this curious, ambiguous place of dimly-lit corridors extending in all directions seems like an antidote.

In Filled with the Brilliance of Life, I am directed along a reflective walkway over a shallow pool. Tiny dots of light, pulsing and changing colour, sometimes gradually and sometimes abruptly, are suspended from the ceiling and reflected in every surface; they sway ever so gently as I move by. Surrounded and engulfed by infinite tiny dots, the experience is disorientating yet dreamy. The distinction between viewer and artwork is blurred, paradoxically I am effaced even as my image is reflected in the glass. Kusama has often talked of the sensation of being erased by polka dots – here we are invited to join her in the surreality of self-obliteration. As she writes: ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.’

The exhibition seems perfectly timed – not from the point of view of the gallery perhaps, left in limbo until recently about when to legally reopen post lockdown – but completely in tune with the zeitgeist. After a year of social isolation, during which we assuaged our boredom with social media’s mindless infinite scroll, Kusama’s visualisation of infinity seems like an intellectual or philosophical comeback. (It is also highly Instagrammable – something both gallery and artist are aware of).

The stringent system of social distancing at the Tate afforded me an unusually quiet and solitary experience with the artworks – in ordinary times one can imagine queuing for hours or jostling for space (note: prompt booking advisable as tickets are already sold out until October). This exhibition, despite being by its very nature enclosed, offers a space to reflect on the insanity of the past year, and prompts us to wonder at the expanse of the mind that conceived of such other-worldly creations. ‘I, Kusama, who have lived for many years in my famous specially-built room entirely covered by mirrors, have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom,’ states the message on the wall.