When Yayoi Kusama created her first ever Infinity Room
Going to her show at the Broad? Then uncover the history behind these hugely popular artworks before you do
In 1968, in a press release issued to promote an Alice in Wonderland-themed nude happening in Central Park, the Japanese-born artist Yayoi Kusama wrote, "Like Alice, who went through the looking-glass, I, Kusama, (who have lived for years in my famous, specially-built room entirely covered by mirrors), have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom."
It's hard to verify this claim, as with many of the provocative public statements Kusama made around this time. However, the artist had certainly been building mirrored environments in her Manhattan studio since at least 1965.
"In her first installation incorporating mirrors, her 1965 work Infinity Mirror Room: Phalli’s Field, Kusama arranged hundreds of soft, phallic forms in a roughly 25 square-metre mirrored room," writes author and curator Catherine Taft in our newly updated Kusama monograph. "Meant to be engaged with, the stuffed protuberances – which were multiplied through infinite reflection – enveloped the viewer, creating an almost psychosexual encounter with one’s own body and image."
Indeed, this idea of an infinite, all-encompassing artwork was something that Kusama had explored before, in her large-scale Infinity Net paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s. She had also kitted out rooms with similarly repetitive motifs, including polka dots and penises. However, it was with her following room work that Kusama streamlined her mirror and light works, in a 1966 work called Peep Show or Endless Love Show.
"A mirrored hexagonal room with coloured lights that flashed in time to piped-in rock and roll, Peep Show, like its bawdy namesake, was experienced by viewers through slots located at eye level," writes Taft. "In an onanistic twist, rather than ogling an anonymous ‘star’ on the Peep Show’s stage, the only image one saw was one’s own – reflected ad infinitum in the mirrored walls, surrounded by blinking lights, for all the world like a kinetic marquee."
The work was in keeping with the psychedelic light shows of the period, as well as the seamier side of the sexual revolution; a similarly mirrored environment appears in Self Obliteration, the 1968 film Kusama made with Jud Yalkut. Look out for some deeply groovy body painting, which takes place inside Kusama's mirrored environment, towards the end of this short movie, below.
Infinity Rooms became a less–prominent aspect of Kusama's work following her return to Japan in 1977 and it wasn't until 1993, when she was chosen to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, that the art world got a good look into one of her Infinity Rooms again, this time decorated with a polka-dot theme, and with Ms Kusama herself in attendance at points, handing out miniature pumpkins.
Since then, she has recreated different Infinity Rooms at various sites around the world, to critical and popular acclaim. A show of six Infinity Rooms opens at the Broad in LA this weekend, and advance tickets have sold out already; while big crowds are bound to greet the installation of two new Infinity Rooms at David Zwirner's Chelsea gallery next month. Once highly avant-garde, these newer infinity rooms have proven to be remarkably popular with pop stars such as Adele and Katy Perry, as well as ordinary gallerygoers, who will queue for hours to spend a few minutes inside these environments.
Why? Well, perhaps because, unlike the earlier versions, these later Infinity Rooms are less places of mind-blowing self-obliteration, and more sites for quiet contemplation which, in a push and pull world even Kusama could never have imagined is something everyone - art lover or simple aesthete - can do with now and again.
"Mirrored rooms like Fireflies on the Water (2000) and Infinity Mirrored Room: The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013) are comprised of tiny points of cool-hued LED lights floating in the dark like a city seen from space or a galaxy viewed from earth," Taft writes. "Love is Calling (2013), on the other hand, is a cavernous environment employing shifting coloured light that fills the interiors of soft, dotted, stalagmite and stalactite forms. Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009) is a mirrored chamber of golden-glowing lantern shapes that appear to float on their own like ceremonial luminarias.
These installations typically have a low platform on which the viewer stands while alone in the room with the mirrored door shut, surrounded by infinity. The floor is sometimes filled with a shallow pool of water that further reflects the lights and adds a natural element to the space, separating the viewer from the infinite walls and lights beyond. These are introspective spaces for perceiving, listening and feeling."
For greater insight into this extraordinarily talented artist order a copy of our newly updated Yayoi Kusama book here.