Need to escape reality? Step into infinity with Yayoi Kusama

Arts

HARI SREENIVASAN: There's a lot going on in the political world of Washington these days, but the hottest ticket in town may be for a museum exhibition by a Japanese artist exploring worlds well beyond today's headlines.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's called an Infinity Mirror Room, and the stretching out of time and space, an effect created through the use of lights, reflection and objects, is one of the obsessions of artist Yayoi Kusama.

Right now at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, people are lining up to experience her world of whimsy, color, shapes, and peeks into the beyond.

Museum director Melissa Chiu:

MELISSA CHIU, Director, Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum: There are fewer and fewer moments today that you're alone in something that feels universal. You are there in amongst the cosmos in one piece. It's just light. And it's a kind of — it's very poignant and very compelling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as the wider world has caught on, Kusama has in fact been a much-loved star in the art world since the early 1960s, after coming to New York from her native Japan.

Her earliest works already displayed motifs that remain to this day, notably the repetition of forms, especially simple marks and polka dots, that Kusama gives a more cosmic significance, as in her series of paintings called "Infinity Nets."

In an interview with Hirshhorn curators in December, the 87-year-old artist, as colorful as her work, spoke of her attempt to reach the infinite through the repetition of images.

YAYOI KUSAMA, Artist (through interpreter): The same things piled one on top of another creates an expanding world that reaches out to the edges of the universe. That is the simple image I have.

This effect of continual repetition calls out to the human senses, and, in return, deep inside of our hearts, we yearn for true amazement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Curator Mika Yoshitake put together the exhibition.

MIKA YOSHITAKE, Curator, Hirshhorn Museum: Her work is very process-oriented, meaning that there is a very lengthy, you know, physical labor that goes on, that the repetition of certain motifs like the nets or the polka dots, and they — it kind of expands organically.

JEFFREY BROWN: That compulsiveness is there in sculptures of phallic forms: a rowboat titled "Violet Obsession," furniture that you might not want to sit in, but Kusama herself was happy to, and happy to be photographed in.

In fact, she often brought herself into the picture, a polka dotted, kimono-wearing, downtown '60s art world figure known for creating happenings on the streets, sometimes with nudes, sometimes protesting the Vietnam War.

She also began to make the Infinity Mirror Rooms, eventually 20 in all, six at the center of this new exhibition, the most ever gathered together.

Part of the attraction of Kusama's work clearly is the fun house effect. I mean, here I am, with cameraman Malcolm, in a field of pumpkins that stretches on, yes, to infinity.

MIKA YOSHITAKE: It's about life. It's about confronting our mortality. It's about filling a void that she has experienced. And that incessant energy, a desire to connect with people, I think it's about the clarity of vision and also perception.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Kusama's story is more complicated. She suffered from hallucinations from childhood, and experienced early trauma from being forced by her mother to spy on her father as he had affairs.

She had a breakdown in the 1970s that forced her to return to Japan. And, for more than 40 years, she's voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital, even as she's continued to work in a studio a block away, making what she's referred to as art medicine.

MIKA YOSHITAKE: Art for her is a form of therapy. So she needs the art, or else she will probably not survive. She is somebody who needs to have a ritual every day of, you know, painting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Certainly, her work brought a good deal of pleasure at the Hirshhorn exhibition, especially in the Obliteration Room, a pristine white-walled space in which visitors were invited to join in the art-making by adding dots of their own.

Captured in time-lapse video, the room was being transformed, just as Kusama intended, according to museum director Chiu.

MELISSA CHIU: The word obliteration has a very harsh kind of meaning, but, for her this was, in a way, how she thinks about her art, that her art is transforming her own life, helping her to deal with life, but also potentially allowing others to interact with it here in this room.

JEFFREY BROWN: Museum-goers couldn't resist, and neither could I.

So, if I put it like this …

MELISSA CHIU: Put wherever you like, Jeff.

(LAUGHTER)

MELISSA CHIU: So, balancing. See how he's balancing?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MELISSA CHIU: You could create patterns from randomness. As you can see, some people couldn't resist and they have tried to create a line with their dots.

But all bets are off. You can do whatever you like.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a lot of humor and a lot of pain in the work of Yayoi Kusama, who continues to put in full days at her studio creating new paintings and sculptures, even as record crowds here flock to see the results.

From the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The exhibition is in Washington through May 14. Then, for two years, it travels to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland, and Atlanta.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow.

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