When tickets went on sale in September for Yayoi Kusama’s Broad Museum show in Los Angeles, it’s estimated that 150,000 people joined the digital queue to buy tickets within the first five minutes; 50,000 of those managed to get a ticket – and the show sold out in an hour.
The reason? The exhibition featured six of the artist’s Insta-famous ‘infinity mirror rooms’.
Australians can cop a squiz at three of Kusama’s perception-bending installations this summer, if they can get themselves to Brisbane – where Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art just opened their career survey Yayoi Kusama: Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow (co-presented with the National Gallery of Singapore, where the show opened in June).
Coming six years after their solo show Look Now See Forever, which featured recent work, Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow looks back at almost five decades of the 88-year-old artist’s practice, starting with early paintings made as a young woman in post-war Japan, and spanning to recent soft sculptures, mirror-room installations and paintings. Visual motifs of dots, pumpkins and nets prevail across the show, revealed as ongoing obsessions for the artist.
As the Broad Museum queues attest, Kusama is one of the most famous artists in the world these days, but that superstardom is relatively recent – and many of her Insta-fans will be surprised to learn that she was pioneering pop art, minimalism and abstract art in 1960s New York, inspiring her contemporaries Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.
Why did Kusama fly under the radar for so long? Reuben Keehan, QAGOMA’s curator of contemporary Asian art, says it’s partly a case of the boys’ club. “Within the New York art world, history was really shaped by white male artists. As a woman and as a person of colour, she didn’t really fit into that narrative. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and the 1990s that this history started to be rewritten.”
In 1989 Kusama had a major retrospective in New York (in the same year she was shown as part of a contemporary art survey at GOMA); and in 1993, she broke through internationally with her Venice Biennale exhibition – where she presented the infinity room ‘Mirror Room (Pumpkin)’, which is presented in GOMA’s current exhibition in an updated form. In 2011 and 2012, a retrospective exhibition showed in Paris, London and New York, reigniting interest in the octogenarian artist. In 2014, a global survey of museum attendances concluded that Kusama was the most popular artist in the world.
For Keehan, Kusama’s late-life success is a lot to do with the twin powers of “popular appeal and critical integrity”. The rise of Instagram (which launched in October 2010) has also been a huge boon for her vivid aesthetic and selfie-ready mirror installations.
Certainly, the three infinity mirror rooms in Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow are highlights of the exhibition, and each offers quite a different experience. ‘The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens’ (2015) contains layers of experience: the visitor walks into a room of black-on-yellow spotted walls, within which a mirrored cube sits, its surfaces multiplying its surroundings. Perambulating the cube, one comes to a set of steps leading up to a window, just big enough for your head – from which one can see the inside of the cube: an installation of Kusama’s ceramic black-on-orange spotted pumpkins, spreading into infinity via the cube’s mirrored interior surfaces.
In the next room sits a hexagonal mirrored structure, ‘I Want to Love on the Festival Night’ (2017), with three of the same head-sized apertures, at different heights, around the circumference. A funhouse of flashing lights is contained within – once again, mirrored to infinity.
And lastly, visitors can experience one of Kusama’s walk-in infinity mirror rooms: ‘Soul Under the Moon’ (2002), commissioned by QAGOMA for the fourth Asia Pacific Triennial (and one of six works by Kusama that they own). An inconspicuous white button on a white wall causes a white sliding door to open – behind which a galaxy of orbs is lit by ultraviolet lights from above, and reflected to infinity by the mirrored walls and ceiling, and the watery moat below.
It’s a quality of each ‘infinity mirror room’ installation that you cannot photograph it without being in your own photograph. “I think it’s a reminder from Kusama that you’re still there; you’re part of the world,” says Keehan. “Even though her work touches on these spiritual ideas and psychological experiences, there’s also a very strong focus on materiality, and the physical experience.”
Yayoi Kusama: Life Is the Heart of a Rainbow runs until February 11 at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane.
More art worth travelling for: Head to Melbourne this summer for the National Gallery of Victoria's juggernaut inaugural Triennial.