October 21, 2017–January 1, 2018
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors manifest the best and the worst of the Japanese artist’s impulses. In these reflective chambers, dependent on the “Versailles effect” of facing mirrors endlessly reflecting one another, space becomes omni-directional and the visitor (or, in several cases, peephole viewer) loses—well, begins to lose—orientation. In a sense, this immersion in endlessness, underscored by the rhythmic repetition of details within the chambers (including the mirrors’ edges as well as extraneous objects the artist has introduced), recapitulates a primary characteristic of all Kusama’s art: obsessive recurrence. Almost from the beginning of her career she has assembled her paintings and sculptures out of single units repeated indefinitely. Looped lines, air mail stickers, phallic pillow shapes and, in particular, dots have all comprised the singular forms out of which she has conjured everything from giddily colored abstract paintings to almost-monstrous sexual assemblages. There is an edge to everything Kusama makes, no matter how charming.
Infinity Mirrors provides enough of a retrospective context to allow an understanding of Kusama’s precarious psychology, but only just enough. What promises here and there to break out into a full-fledged survey of the artist’s career keeps getting interrupted by the show’s real raison-d’être, the half-dozen mirror rooms she has realized since 1965. You go into one gallery and look at some fascinating things Kusama did—the actual objects or documentation of performance or publications—and your appetite is whetted for more. Instead, you encounter a line of people waiting to pass through a door supervised by museum attendants. You shed your shoes, or your purse, or whatever, while waiting for the visitors ahead of you to finish. You enter the mirrored cube, or maybe rest your eyes at an aperture in some sort of vast globe, and there’s no top, no bottom, no here, no there. Cool.
At least the first couple of times. But the hall-of-mirrors effect gets old sooner or later, as does the constant queuing and herding and 32-second turnarounds, especially as it keeps disrupting your engagement with Kusama’s other achievements, and keeps reminding you of your last experience at an airport. The show culminates in a (mirror-free) dot-room where you can take the colored dot stickers rationed out to you and place them wherever someone hasn’t already (which at this point is the ceiling).
To be fair, it’s wrong to go looking for, much less expect, a true Kusama retrospective here. Infinity Mirrors isn’t advertised as such. The historical material is designed not just to put Kusama, but specifically her mirror rooms, into perspective. But the show is designed to advance the Infinity Mirrors as Kusama’s ultimate form of expression, an evaluation she seems to support. They’re not. They fit in conceptually and stylistically with what she has always done, and (especially given the hype) they certainly maintain the sense of the spectacle she has cultivated at various times in her career. For all their wow factor, however, they lack the hands-on warmth (or at least erotic frisson) of, well, most of Kusama’s other work. They also lack the fervid imagination that sends a thrill through most of her art. Mirror rooms are a ‘60s gimmick; Kusama wasn’t the only artist to make and show one back then, and perhaps wasn’t even the first. Her interventions in the format do almost nothing to relieve it of its technical inertness. The mirrors swallow Kusama more than they swallow us.
Up one flight, in The Broad’s projection room, several recent short videos by Kusama accompanied a lyrical Jud Yalkut art-doc about her from the ‘60s. These have nothing to do with mirrors, but everything to do with the artist, her spirit and her significance. There was plenty more to reflect on here than there was downstairs.
Infinity Mirrors travels next to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (March 3-May 27, 2018), Cleveland Museum of Art (July 9-September 30, 2018) and The High Museum, Atlanta (November 18, 2018-February 17, 2019).