It almost sounds like conceptual art. Put together an exhibition by one of the world’s most popular artists, have it all ready to go, but then tuck it away out of public view—for more than two years.
Now finally opening April 1 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to timed tickets, “One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” serves as a coda and summary of the Smithsonian museum’s 2017 blockbuster “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” that broke all records before it went on a five-stop North American tour. It was the celebrated Kusama infinity mirror rooms that helped the museum double its attendance in 2017 to 1.2 million. The touring exhibition to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta drew another 8,000,000 over the following two years.
With just five of the artist's works, the new showcase of Hirshhorn holdings of Kusama, the highest-paid living female artist and probably the best-loved living contemporary artist in the world, may seem modest. Keep in mind, however, that two of them contain infinity.
Kusama’s works were perfect for a selfie age—with patrons capturing their visits inside the enclosures posed against the vast, forever-repeated lights and imagery. The effect was a sensation. The buzz it created was like the infinity rooms themselves with the images endlessly promoting the art through social media posts.
But the pieces were also the worst for a Covid age.
The prospect of crowds and confined viewing spaces made the new show “One With Eternity” impossible to open even after the museums began welcoming back visitors after the months-long Covid-19 closures.
For the 2017 exhibition, visitors were limited to a timed 20 seconds in each Infinity Mirror Room before being ushered out. That stay the artist has increased to 30 seconds for the new installation.
Of the two new rooms, Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (Floor Show) is a 2017 reimagining of what was the first such mirrored room by the artist in 1965, at a time when the Tokyo-born artist was making her name in New York engaging in all manner of influential artistic approaches, from large abstract paintings to smaller soft sculptures. The mirrored room is filled with a field of red polka-dotted tubers sculptures. They seem to go on forever reflected in the mirrors on all sides in the chamber.
For the artist growing up in Japan, her childhood was defined by trauma after her mother insisted that she follow her father when he left the house to spy on his many extramarital affairs. Her works, many of them defined by phallus shapes, are a response to that childhood experience with art being a way for her to channel a life-long struggle with mental health issues. “For Kusama, she calls this psychosomatic art,” Johnson says. For decades, the 93-year-old artist has lived voluntarily as a patient in a mental hospital not far from her Tokyo studio.
“She used art as a tool to overcome her fears about things. When she talks about creating the phalli that are lining the floor in Phalli’s Field, and laying down in them, that is her overcoming a fear of sex. That was her overcoming a fear of the violence that she associated with the phallus.”
The other work Infinity Mirrored Room—My Heart is Dancing Into the Universe, from 2018, is one of Kusama’s latest such works. It’s filled with black paper lanterns of various sizes, whose white dots shift colors from yellows to reds, to blues—and are also endlessly multiplied inside the mirrored chamber.
The piece was acquired jointly with the Buffalo AKG Museum in New York, which presented another challenge caused by the years-long delay: The Buffalo museum is undergoing renovation and reopens in the first half of 2023 and will be requiring the Infinity Mirror Room, which means the Hirshhorn window to have it on display would be shortened the longer they waited to open.
As it is, the exhibition will be up longer than many of the museum's shows—almost eight months until it closes November 27, 2022.
It also happens to coincide with two other strong exhibitions by contemporary women artists—a major survey of Laurie Anderson and Toyin Ojih Odutola’s similarly immersive exhibition. Coming this summer is an exhibition of women and non-binary artists in the collection. “We feel like it’s this happy accident,” Johnson says of the confluence.
The hope is that visitors will explore other parts of the museum as they await their timed entry into the Kusama exhibition. The Kusama tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first served basis starting at 9:30 a.m. on the museum plaza on days it is open. Museum members can book their timed-entry passes online in advance. While waiting in line for the infinity mirrors, there are the other Kusama works in “One with Eternity” to consider, the largest of which is the 2016 Pumpkin, a spotted yellow outdoor delight that is getting its first indoor showing. The eight-foot tall, 1,800-pound sculpture becomes its own immersive environment in a specially painted orange room with its own carefully placed black dots on the floors, wall and ceiling.
“The Kusama studio is incredibly specific about everything, down to the placement of the polka dots,” Johnson says. “We had to go back and forth with them a number of times.”
The oldest work in the show is an early painting, The Hill, 1953 A (No. 30) that seems more subtle than her later work, but shows “intimate images of her hallucinations as they were happening from the time she was a very small child,” Johnson says. “Then she started thinking more sculpturally.”
Flowers—Overcoat, from 1964, reflects the beginnings of her foray into a soft three-dimensional work that would influence such pop artists of the day as Claes Oldenburg.
But the Infinity Mirror Rooms, whose presence caused lines around the museum five years ago, are undoubtedly the showstoppers of the exhibition. Why, though, are they so popular?
In one sense, they embrace a trend in contemporary art to immerse or envelop the viewer, Johnson says. “They’re giving people this experience of being physically overwhelmed in a space that produces a sort of awe. That ability to elicit awe and curiosity and amazement, and to feel like you’re in a space that’s unlike any space you’ve ever been in, is one that people are seeking. We are in a time where people are acquiring experiences like they acquire possessions.”
They also like to share them as selfies on social media. “It just happens so organically—all these forces collided to both create this experience that people are craving, but also it’s marketing itself,” Johnson says. “The craze is spreading. It’s like a wildfire. Kusama-mania!”
Still, there’s something deeper. “There is a weight and a gravity to them that is rooted in a very honest and personal exploration that this artist has been engaged in for decades. She’s been creating art for more than 70 years now, and her art shows a remarkable consistency of vision,” Johnson says.
The artist has penned a galvanizing message for these times and addressed “To the Whole World.” It can be read at length on museum’s website, but it opens with these words:
Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow. . .
Her work is not just characterized by what she gains for her own stability, says Johnson. “It’s something that starts as a personal experience, but then, by her desire to understand, to make sense of that experience and to share it with others.”
That was clear in the last exhibition that included so many large Infinity Net paintings that led to the Infinity Mirror Rooms. The idea of the smaller survey is to show how the museum’s collection is striving to enact this progression as well. But Johnson says it’s also to secure Kusama’s legacy for a career in which she was virtually forgotten for several decades before her soaring comeback to the public eye.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that that’s a trajectory that often happens for female artists, and we really want to cement her legacy both within our collection at the Smithsonian, and as part of the story of art and art making in the 20th and 21st century. She’s such a key player, and that needs to be remembered.”
“One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” opens at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. April 1 and runs through November 27, 2022. Admission to the museum is free, but same-day, but timed-admission passes to the exhibition will be issued on a first-come, first-served basis.