The much-heralded and much-hyped Yayoi Kusama retrospective opening Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario is renowned for its so-called Infinity Mirrors, small mirrored interiors where the viewer is allowed 20 seconds to experience various permutations of infinite space before making way for the next person in line.
Yet the Toronto exhibition also features a wide range of the Japanese artist's other work dating as far back as the 1950s, paintings, drawings and sculptures you can contemplate for as long as you want. These include A Woman from 1952, a small work on paper which may take a few moments to recognize as a female form; the figure is just a thick black outline, the body a large circle, the head a smaller one, the limbs feathery appendages marked with the red polka dots that were to become Kusama's signature. You can see right through this woman to the pastel ground behind the figure.
For the young Kusama, woman was a void to be filled – perhaps with the many stuffed tubers and phalluses the artist also created over the years as she, according to the text panels in this show, struggled to overcome her fear of sex. Today, Kusama, who turns 89 later this month, is usually photographed wearing an outlandish pink wig; around the corner from A Woman, there's another showy photograph of her in her days on the New York art scene of the 1960s. Dressed like some wayward harlequin, she's wearing a white leotard and a conical straw hat, both covered with polka dots as part of a "self-obliteration" performance in which the artist would eventually cover herself entirely with dots. The point may be erasure, but you could hardly find a more attention-grabbing outfit with which to make it.
There's a rich paradox at the heart of Kusama's soaring late-life career as thousands snap their selfies inside installations designed to efface the individual and unite us all in harmony: Each celebrity-hungry Instagram addict is seduced by a brilliant act of showmanship on the part of a once-struggling female Asian artist now cheerfully eclipsing the white male giants of the pop-art movement who borrowed her best ideas. Kusama invites us to lose our personalities in an act of collective wonder, but she emerges as a sly individual, a trickster capable of pushing pop art into the new millennium.
" Kusama was a pioneer and this is one of those histories that is under-recognized," said curator Mika Yoshitake, who organized the retrospective for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, where it showed last year. Yoshitake points out that Kusama's first Infinity Mirror predated Lucas Samaras's celebrated 1966 mirrored room by a year, that Andy Warhol saw an exhibition of her silk-screened wallpaper featuring multiple images of a rowboat four years before he created his similar cow's head wallpaper, and that Kusama was creating soft sculptures before Claes Oldenburg and his famous hamburger.
Born in 1929, Kusama had come to America from Japan in 1957, but her efforts to gain recognition – and sales – in New York often seemed futile. Yoshitake suggests that her political performances – in which she painted volunteers' naked bodies in another erasure of individualism, this time reconfigured as a protest against the Vietnam War – were partly a way of getting some much-needed attention. She returned to Japan in the 1970s and underwent a period of depression after the death of her father and her mentor, the American artist Joseph Cornell; she turned to writing, publishing, among other things, both a poem and novel titled Manhattan Suicide Addict. It was in 1993, when she revived her mirrored rooms for the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale, that her career as a visual artist was reborn.
There are six Infinity Mirrored Room installations at the AGO, some of them peep shows into which the visitor merely pokes a head, most of them little cabins you step inside to gaze out at infinite reflections of yourself – like a child playing with facing mirrors. In the peep box Love Forever, which allows for two people to view it at one time, you are confronted by your own face and only see the other – or his camera – obliquely, unless you turn your head fully to one side. What better metaphor for love?
Inside the actual rooms, you may lose yourself altogether as you recede into infinite space, your own reflection reproduced so many times that its standard attraction – that familiar face you critique every day in the bathroom mirror – becomes alien rather than hypnotic. Or you disappear more literally into darkness illuminated only by a few twinkling lights. These are the most beautiful of the rooms, depositing the viewer in a sparkling city at night – or on the edge of the abyss.
The experience is seductive enough that it captured the attention of thousands of visitors at its Washington stop and soon morphed into a social-media storm, amplifying Kusama's theme of infinite repetition as it fulfilled her quest for crowd participation.
The artist herself is not active on social media, but another paradox of her career is that this runaway success limits the viewer experience. In a system developed for the Hirshhorn with the artist's collaboration, groups of up to three visitors are given 20 seconds inside a room before an attendant knocks on the door and it's the next group's turn. Can you really experience immersive installations that seem to call for quiet contemplation in such short periods? Organizers are convinced you can, and certainly you do get the gist of each space's effect.
"The hype can't replace the experience," says the AGO's associate curator of contemporary art Adelina Vlas. "Sure, take a selfie, but if you aren't present in the moment you are missing an opportunity to really experience the work."
So, phone-toting visitors, beware.
What is perhaps more detrimental to the experience and to understanding Kusama's oeuvre is the reality that many visitors are going to have to queue for as long as 20 minutes to get their 20 seconds. With six infinity rooms to visit, it's clear that the rest of the exhibition may get short shrift.
And that's a pity, because there is so much else to see. Besides A Woman, the early work includes various versions of Kusama's Infinity Net paintings, for which she scraped away at white paint slathered on a dark ground to fashion lozenges of black or grey, a precursor to her more mechanically perfect polka dot. The most impressive example here, from 1960, is a painting less than half a metre high and almost 10 metres wide, actually a long strip cut off the bottom of a much larger painting that was to cover a whole gallery wall but proved too big. Viewed in an art-historical context, this gesture prolongs – both literally and figuratively – but also subverts the heroic abstract expressionism that preceded it. Kusama surmounted the cult of the male genius to launch an art that seeks to demolish individualism with abstraction on a cosmic scale, to this very day.
By 1976, she was openly mocking the traditional format of the painting as she mounted a plethora of stuffed silver sausages into a rectangle to be hung on a wall. Elliptically, this exhibition only tells us that Kusama, who had found the Infinity Net paintings were a meditative antidote to depression, was struggling here to overcome her fear of sex and the phallus. In her autobiography, she describes a childhood trauma: When she was a girl, her dictatorial mother insisted that she spy on her philandering father.
That may sound bleakly gothic, but Kusama's art is actually one of riotously colourful populism that includes, in Life (Repetitive Vision), a whole flower bed of yellow-and-black dotted tuber-phalluses that morph into snake-like vegetation. The installations also include The Obliteration Room, an entirely white living room that visitors will gradually cover in the coloured adhesive polka dots they are handed at the door. At the media preview, before the exhibition had even opened, it was already a crowdsourced retort to its own whiteness. No doubt when this exhibition closes at the end of May, it will be a pointillist mass of obliterating dots.
As Kusama extends the humour and the colour of the 1960s with simple interactive gestures, it seems her main achievement is the advancement of pop art, beyond the fading clichés of pink-and-orange silkscreens, Ben-Day dots or advertising imagery, into a lively practice for the social-media century. From the Polaroid period to the Instagram instant, Kusama has had the last laugh.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 3 to May 27 (ago.ca)