I heard so much buzz about the Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Mirrors exhibit. When it made a stop at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, I knew I definitely wanted to check it out. Especially considering this was the only stop this exhibit was making in all of Canada.
I am not an artsy person, and I knew nothing about this famous Japanese artist. But I kept hearing about this exhibit, and a quick search online told me I would enjoy her work. It was so different. So out there…so abstract…so eclectic.
Bold, flashy colors. Eye catching prints. Controversial topics. It was right up my alley.
And I was right. I loved it.
Running from March to May, 2018, this exhibit was wildly popular, and it proved quite the challenge to get tickets. I tried for the longest time, and it seemed impossible. But finally, in the last weeks of the exhibit, I lucked out.
I went early afternoon on a weekday. Ticket entry was timed for crowd control purposes. Staff told me it would take me an hour and a half, at the most, to go through.
This was very misleading.
It was more like two and a half hours, if not more. Don’t underestimate the amount of time you will spend standing in line, waiting to see each exhibit.
Don’t let this deter you though, it was definitely worth it.
Visitors entered three at a time for most exhibits. Once you stepped inside each mirrored room, you had 30 seconds to look at the exhibit. The staff were trained to stand outside with a stop watch. They would knock, and then whip the door open as soon as your time was up.
There were 6 mirrored exhibits, which were completely enclosed. There were also installation rooms (I had no idea what this meant), photographs, paintings and other, smaller pieces throughout the exhibit. In addition, a biography of Kusama was told throughout the exhibit, to give visitors an idea of who she is and what she represents.
A quick biography – Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist in her late 80’s who uses art as an escape. She has dealt with mental health issues all her life, and because of this, voluntarily lives in a psychiatric institute in Japan.
The whole exhibit was very well done. This has to say something about Kusama’s obvious talent, if it impressed even us non-creative folks.
The first exhibit was a room full of stuffed, polka dot penises.
Yes, you read that right.
Every single face in the lineup carried an expression of curiosity and questions. We couldn’t wait to stand in a room full of polka dot penises!
What the what!?
What kind of exhibit was this?! I had briefly read about it prior to my visit, but I didn’t read into it THAT much.
Talk about taboo. Awesome.
The concept for this mirrored room stemmed from Kusama’s crippling childhood fear surrounding sexuality, but, instead of hiding from her fear, her goal was to turn her fear into a safe space.
This is a woman who knows how to face her fears!
Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
The Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity is full of golden lanterns on a black background. It was hard to photograph in only 30 seconds, because the lights flash, change and shimmer in a cyclical manner.
The concept behind this piece revolved around how Kusama perceives life and afterlife.
The set up and colours used, represented the Japanese tradition of toro nagashi (flowing lanterns). This annual ceremony is the famous one we all see photos of, where paper lanterns (chochin) float down the river to commemorate the spirits of our loved ones, and to guide them back to their resting places during the obon festivals.
It was a very peaceful and serene space. I really wish I could have stayed in there, by myself, for at least a couple minutes.
Dots Obsession – Love Transformed Into Dots
The next exhibit was the first room installation. I had no idea what that meant, because hey, I’m not artsy. What do I know? But, it apparently means that the exhibit fills the entire room, whereas other exhibits are small, enclosed spaces within a room.
Giant pink bubbles covered in black dots fill the room.
When I say giant, picture various beach balls, ranging in size from a small car to a farm tractor. They were huge!
One of the balls itself was a mirrored room. Stepping inside, there was a mirrored room effect of pink and black dots for…well, infinity. Obviously.
This installation room was part of a series called Dots Obsession. The concept was based on hallucinations Kusama experienced as a child. She has described these episodes as,
…having her surroundings completely covered with an infinitely repeating pattern.
This is the imagery we see in her art. She really did an amazing job at bringing her visions to life and allowing us into her world, to see what she sees. Her work has an almost hallucinogenic effect, and I can only imagine what it must be like to not be able to escape that on a day to day basis.
This exhibit was very unique, because visitors didn’t actually step into the room, like the others. Instead, it was viewed from two small windows on the outside.
The idea here, was that lovers are meant to look into the windows, and view themselves repeated, together, for infinity.
The lights, and light patterns, in this room constantly changed, giving a trippy, kaleidoscope effect.
Another unique thing about this room, was that the main shape in the pattern is a hexagon, not polka dots, as expected.
I never did find out why, but I think this was worth noting, because this detail makes this room very different from her other work.
To Kusama, the concept of “love forever” represents civil rights, sexual liberation, and antiwar.
The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away room was like a disco inside. I found this room hard to photograph as well, because of the flashing and fast changing lights.
When creating this room, Kusama’s aim was to heighten the visitor’s senses, and produce an out of body experience. Once you entered the room, the lighting flickered and created a pulsing, rhythmic illusion of polka dots.
I was hoping for a good beat when the door closed. Shall we sing Shiny, Disco Ball now, or later? Later? Ok…
Created in 2016, this room was a more peaceful vibe. In her earlier work, Kusama’s work focused more on protesting, and fighting against, the norm, whereas her more recent pieces focus on and harmony and connection, so there was a different tone to them.
** Be aware that there were flashing lights in this room. If you suffer from seizures of any kind, you may want to skip this one. **
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins
No personal photography was allowed in this final room. I suspect it is because Kusama wanted visitors to focus on being present, and enjoy the moment, rather than just trying to get a perfect selfie.
In any sense, it was similar to the first room – Phalli’s Fields, meaning it had polka dot structures covering the floor, but instead of penises, these were all glowing orange pumpkins.
THAT is a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say!
The pumpkins were modelled after the Japanese kabochas quash. Growing up on a pumpkin farm, the theme of pumpkins is seen throughout Kusama’s work over the years. She has described one of her earliest hallucinations as,
…a pumpkin that began to speak to me in the most animated way.
After that, pumpkins became her lifeline, representing a symbol of hope as she struggled to hold onto reality.
The Obliteration Room
The last room, The Obliteration Room, was a sight to behold. There were three rooms within this installation – a dining room, a living room, and an outdoor deck, complete with Muskoka deck chairs, a fire pit, and a bicycle. I believe the deck set up was specific for the Toronto exhibit only.
Before I entered the room, I was given a sheet of stickers, and told to place them anywhere and everywhere. The stickers were polka dots of all colours and sizes, of course.
When the exhibit opened, these rooms, and everything in them, were a stark white.
In its final days, every inch of every surface in these three rooms was covered in colourful dots. The dots had essentially obliterated everything else in the rooms. It was brilliantly simple, and also a visual statement of how incredibly popular this artist truly is.
It was also a genius idea to invite visitors to collaborate on the creation of a piece, especially as a finale.
Is 30 Seconds Enough?
30 seconds per room is indeed short.
How did this time frame come to be? First, Kusama wanted a time limit, and worked with curators to decide what that timeframe would look like.
Second, studies have shown that visitors spend about 30 seconds looking at each painting in a museum. Now, I’m not a stare-at-paintings person, but I do think this study fails to recognize that those visitors are not actually engaging with the art piece, and are only glancing at it.
I find this odd, because, isn’t that the goal of every artist, everywhere? To engage your fans? To give them the opportunity to appreciate the piece you have created?
But, again, what do I know? I’m not an artist.
With Infinity Mirrors, we were not looking at a painting on a wall. It was so much more, and there was so much to look at, even if it was the same thing repeated infinitely. (Don’t send me hate mail – I did say, I’m not the artsy type!) 🙂
Knowing my time was almost up before it even started, I didn’t know where to focus my eyes, and I didn’t feel like I got the full grasp of what Kusama was trying say with each room.
The upside to such a brief viewing, was that any attempt to focus on one thing in the room, is eliminated, forcing visitors to focus on everything as a whole, and since the concept is infinity…
Well, ok, maybe they did know what they were doing.
Now tell me, have you seen Infinity Mirrors? What did you think of it?