Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) is world renowned for her visually dazzling, multidimensional works, making her one of the most prominent, and popular, artists of the 21st century. Her LIGHT OF LIFE is featured in the NCMA’s interactive exhibition You Are Here, open now through July 22.
Yayoi Kusama, LIGHT OF LIFE, 2018, mirrored box and LED lighting system, H. 86 5/8 x W. 84 1/4 x D. 72 7/8 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and the bequest of Carlyle Adams, with additional funding from James Keith Brown and Eric Diefenbach, and Dr. W. Kent Davis and Dr. Carlos Garcia-Velez
Much of Kusama’s art explores motifs of repetition, personal and shared space, cosmology, and infinity, and the artist often combines them to create a uniquely immersive experience. For inspiration Kusama draws on her personal struggles with neurosis and hallucinations, which she has suffered from for the majority of her life. Her hallucinations, often taking the form of polka dots and phalluses, are obsessively used throughout her work, and even her own clothing—she frequently wears polka-dotted dresses and outfits, literally inserting herself inside her fear. In doing so she powerfully demonstrates agency over her mental illness.
Kusama’s works regularly convey a sense of endlessness, using mirrors and repetitive visuals to accomplish this. The Infinity Rooms—arguably the artist’s most recognizable series of works—best illustrate her determination to create a truly infinite experience.
Many infinity rooms consist almost solely of mirrors, generating countless reflections of the viewer once he or she steps inside. The Obliteration Room, an austere, white infinity room furnished with chairs and tables becomes “obliterated” with thousands of circular, multicolored stickers (recalling the obsessive, polka-dotted visual) as viewers are invited to stick them wherever they please. These boundless, disorienting spaces are both mystifying and incomprehensible in a way that mimics the artist’s idea of floating through the cosmos. As Kusama has said, “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
A continuation of the infinity room series, the NCMA’s newly acquired LIGHT OF LIFE (2018) also employs these infinite, cosmological elements. Currently on view in the You Are Here exhibition, LIGHT OF LIFE is a hexagonal, mirrored box with three openings at varying heights, inviting the viewer to peer inside the box, or “room.” At once visitors are met with infinite reflections of their face, lit by a multitude of color-changing lights. The mesmerizing experience evokes the familiar, dazzling disorientation that Kusama is known to create. Furthermore LIGHT OF LIFE’s multiple openings extend the invitation to multiple viewers, thus disrupting one’s subjective experience and private space. In doing so Kusama not only invites the viewer to participate in her own hallucinatory experience but also eliminates the possibility of the viewer’s subjectivity by making the space a shared one.
Museum art handlers and conservators carefully install Kusama's LIGHT OF LIFE.
At age 89 Yayoi Kusama continues to produce interactive, infinity-like spaces, as well as paintings and sculptures. Her brilliant efforts have gone on to inspire numerous artists of the 20th and 21st century, and her international success as a Japanese woman, especially at the start of her career, is nothing short of revolutionary. Her refusal to adhere to traditional gender roles, as well as her determination to make a name for herself in a predominantly white, patriarchal field further demonstrates the significance of her art. Kusama is a force to be reckoned with, and her legacy, much like her work, is infinite.
“Everyone, please convey my heart’s wishes and what I want to spread, which is love for the world and reverence for the universe.”
Adria Gunter is a curatorial intern at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
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