"If it weren't for art, I'd have killed myself a long time ago," Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama told ArtReview in a 2007 interview. Ten years later, at 88 years old, she is still working feverishly with no end in sight — not unlike the view of her "Infinity Mirrors," a series of chambers in which the visitor is surrounded by lights, sculpture or whatever objects Kusama chooses, limitlessly reflected in every direction. Six of these extra-dimensional installations will be on display at the Broad, from Oct. 21 through Jan. 1.
The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), part of the Broad's permanent collection, is a darkened space illuminated by dozens of lights made boundless by mirrors, giving the viewer the sense that she's anchorless in a sea of stars. All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, completed last year, presents a stylized patch of yellow gourds covered in black polka dots, intimating an alien landscape.
Curated by the Hirshhorn Museum's Mika Yoshitake, the show was a sensation in Washington, D.C., where it opened earlier this year to lines around the block, and then moved to Seattle, where demand remained high. When admission to the Broad's show went on sale on Sept. 1, it sold out in a matter of two hours, during which some would-be purchasers waited in a virtual queue only to walk away empty-handed. The museum subsequently expanded the show's hours and released another 40,000 tickets on Oct. 2. (A limited number of same-day tickets will be available for $30.)
"It really presents a chronology of the Infinity Mirror rooms and studies those in depth," explains the Broad's Sarah Loyer, who is overseeing the landmark installation. "So this is really looking at that particular body of work and contextualizing that within her greater practice. It also includes paintings and sculpture and works on paper, collages and many other types of work she's done throughout her career."
Included in the show is Obliteration Room, a generic-looking lounge all in white wherein visitors are given colored polka dots to place wherever they choose. As the days pass, the features of the room are obliterated, reduced to a mass of dots. It is, in many ways, key to understanding Kusama's work.
"A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement," she wrote in her book, Manhattan Suicide Addict. "Polka dots are a way to infinity."
It stems back to Kusama's early memories when, as a 10-year-old, she began experiencing hallucinations she described to the Wall Street Journal as "flashes of light, auras or dense fields of dots." Her mother was ever suspicious of Kusama's philandering father and recruited the young girl to spy on him. The experience traumatized her, creating a fear of sex, which she grappled with in her work, populating installations and sculptures with countless hand-sewn phalluses.
Kusama's move to New York City in 1958 began a friendship with artists Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, and later Joseph Cornell, with whom she was close but not intimate. "Her work in the '60s, staging happenings and performances, really were about creating an experience that values the audience over the object," Loyer says. "In her infinity mirror rooms, the audience member, the viewer, becomes the subject. You walk into the room and the door closes behind you and you see yourself reflected. Not only the objects around you but you are infinite."
Kusama's second mirror room, Love Forever, accommodates two viewers at a time standing outside, peering in through small windows. "You see your eyes and you see somebody else's eyes," Loyer explains. "It's playing with the idea of vision and the idea of voyeurship. So, originally she installed that work in 1966 as part of an installation called 'Kusama's Peep Show.'"
Kusama's New York years made her a recognizable name to art aficionados, and artists such as Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono cited her as an influence. A mental breakdown in 1973 prompted Kusama's return to Japan, where her focus turned to writing surrealist poems, novels and short stories. An attempt to become a dealer of blue-chip art ended after only a couple of years when Kusama suffered another breakdown and, in 1977, entered the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she has lived ever since.
Her departure from the West precipitated a period in which her work was mostly forgotten, but her Mirror Room (Pumpkin), exhibited at the Japanese Pavilion of the 1993 Venice Biennale, signaled a return to prominence. In 2014, she set the record for a female artist, selling a piece for $7.1 million.
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Today, she might be the only octogenarian in Tokyo routinely decked out in a crimson wig and polka dots. Last month she opened her own museum, and continues to produce artwork in her studio, a short walk from the hospital.
"There's a renewed interest in her work and its relevance, particularly the Infinity Mirror rooms," Loyer observes of the show, which will continue on to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Cleveland Museum of Art and, finally, Atlanta's High Museum in 2018 after its run in Los Angeles.
"What they would have felt like in 1965 might be a similar experience that people are having with them today, that they continue to feel really innovative and experimental. People are flocking to see them wherever they're shown."
YAYOI KUSAMA: INFINITY MIRRORS | The Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown | Oct. 21-Jan. 1 | thebroad.org