For 87-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, art is medicine. Kusama is best known for her use of phallic shapes, dots, LED lights and mirrors in her artwork to create pieces that feel obsessive, hallucinatory and disorienting.
Her exhibit “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” came to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on Feb. 23 and free timed tickets have been released on its website every Monday. The exhibit has had unprecedented popularity, with the tickets running out in under a minute and people selling extra tickets on Craigslist.
The exhibit begins with Kusama’s soft phallic sculptures called “Accumulations.” This includes a boat and oars covered in purple tubers and chairs covered in white tubers, leading up to the first Infinity Mirror Room called “Phalli’s Field” filled with white polka-dotted tubers.
Kusama’s phallic artwork was meant to be cathartic and serve as self-therapy to help her get over her fear of sex and intimacy. Two or three people can enter the room at a time and guests could spend up to 20 seconds inside, making the experience personal and intimate.
The infinity rooms are each approximately the size of a walk-in closet, with narrow pathways a few feet long for visitors to stand on while taking pictures and enjoying the exhibit. The mirrors and lights create the illusion of incredible size. The circular shape of the Hirshhorn is very conducive for Kusama’s exhibit, creating a flow from one infinity room to the next. Sculptures, peep shows and paintings line the walls to occupy visitors as they wait to enter each infinity room.
The second infinity room is a peep show called “Love Forever,” where viewers can look inside of a hexagonal mirrored box and see themselves mirrored into infinity with flashing LED lights. For Kusama, the viewer is an integral part of the artwork, as evidenced by her extensive use of mirrors, reflections and interactive exhibits.
Museum employees have timers and ensure that visitors are in and out of the infinity rooms within 20 seconds, keeping the lines moving smoothly. According to a Hirshhorn employee, the exhibit is arranged almost chronologically, with Kusama’s earliest works at the beginning. “Phalli’s Field” and “Love Forever” are brighter and almost carnival-esque, but the works after them are darker not only in color but also in theme.
The third infinity room is called “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” and featured lights hanging and flickering like stars in the galaxy. The work makes viewers feel as though they are in outer space, causing them to contemplate their small size and existence in relation to the rest of the galaxy.
Large polka-dotted inflatable balls fill the next room, and one of these giant balls is the fourth infinity room called “Dots Obsession - Love Transformed Into Dots.” Visitors enter the ball, which is filled with mirrors and more inflatable balls. While this may seem light and happy, there is a video installation for visitors to watch while they wait in line of Kusama singing in Japanese about her experience with depression and antidepressants.
In Japan, there is a summer tradition of lighting paper lanterns and floating them down the river. The belief is that these will help guide ancestral spirits to their resting places. The fifth infinity room, called “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” is inspired by this tradition and is filled with yellow-gold lantern-shaped light fixtures. At one point the room goes dark, and a nearby plaque indicated that this was meant to highlight our mortality and the certainty of death.
The sixth infinity room, called “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” is inspired by Kusama’s upbringing. Her family grew and sold plant seeds for a living, and on a nearby plaque Kusama recalls visiting a pumpkin farm as a child and being in awe of the strange shape and size of pumpkins. Before entering the room, visitors are warned to take extra care, as a recent visitor fell and damaged one of the pumpkins -- valued at over $800,000.
The final part of the exhibit is “The Obliteration Room,” an all white room filled with IKEA furniture. Before entering, guests are given small sheets of colored dot stickers and are told they can place them wherever they want in the room, allowing visitors to shape the art itself.
Although Kusama’s art resembles pop-art and tends to be very bright in color, her work addresses dark themes related to mental illness, sexuality and mortality. She frequently brings up the idea of self-obliteration, referring to the destruction of self and uniqueness in an attempt to blend, and this theme is present in many of the works in her exhibit. Kusama checked herself into a mental hospital in 1977 and has continued to live there ever since.
Kusama’s exhibit will be at the Hirshhorn until May 14, and tickets will continue to be released every Monday at noon on the Hirshhorn website.