Yayoi Kusama: Answering love’s call

Entering the Infinity Mirror Room feels like diving into obsidian water and being swallowed by a submarine cavern. Freckled, bioluminescent tentacles protrude like cilia from the mirrored walls of the endless chamber. The phosphorescent arms tessellate infinitely into the black water, disappearing into a swirling forest of neon light.

The Infinity Mirror Room is an invention of legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose oeuvre includes (among many other things) over 20 such rooms, each containing a different universe of her own design. The one described above, titled “LOVE IS CALLING” (2013), was recently added to the permanent collection of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston and is currently on display until February 2021. Admission to “LOVE IS CALLING” requires its own ticket, which also covers regular admission to the ICA. Tickets cover a 30-minute time slot and are good for two minutes inside the Infinity Mirror Room (which, in fairness, feels like an eternity; maybe the space warps time, too). At the time of writing, tickets were booked through November. A modest collection of works by the artist and her contemporaries surround the piece, giving it context while highlighting Kusama’s vast contributions to contemporary art.

Kusama’s name looms large in contemporary art history. Born in Japan on the eve of the Great Depression, Kusama immigrated to the United States in the 1950s in pursuit of her fascination with Abstract Expressionism. She joined the ranks of artists like Kenneth Callahan and Georgia O’Keefe, dancing between minimalism, pop and performance art, defining these genres but always transcending them. Like many of her contemporaries, she was fascinated by sex and the human form. Kusama’s orgiastic “happenings” remain some of the defining works of the 1960s. The flash public gatherings of naked hippies, their bodies speckled with Kusama’s signature polka dots, penetrated fortresses of power no less exalted than the New York Stock Exchange, the Museum of Modern Art and the United Nations. The “happenings” demonstrate the premium she places on audience participation in her art, a longtime interest of which the Infinity Mirror Rooms are but the most recent manifestation.

And through it all, there are polka dots. Commentators well-intentioned and otherwise have labelled Kusama the “princess” or, only a little less dismissively, “high priestess” of polka dots. They blanket nearly every piece of her art she has ever made, forming chains, waves, rainstorms and beauty marks. The idea behind the dots — the aesthetic anchor of her internationally-acclaimed six-decade career — is a concept she calls “obliteration,” the visual fusion of background and foreground which represents the destruction of the self and her complete integration into the surrounding world. Unsurprisingly, Kusama’s works also deal in themes of life and death. In addition to its visual wonders, “LOVE IS CALLING” features an audio recording of the artist reciting one of her poems in Japanese, titled “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears,” which deals heavily with both.

At 90 years old, wheelchair-bound with an enamel-red bob, Kusama maintains a full-time career as an artist. Her newest Infinity Mirror Room, “DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE” (2019), is currently on display at the David Zwirner gallery in New York City. The enduring integrity of her vision distinguishes her from many other artists of her pedigree, including the great social critic Hans Haacke, whose works have devolved into base expressions of personal frustrations with the Trump era. Kusama hasn’t done that; she’s remained constant in the face of the political tempest that has swept up many of her contemporaries. At the same time, the works of younger artists surrounding hers at the ICA draw attention to how much her work has changed over the years. Her own political voice is more hushed now, speaking not to the current moment but to deeper rivers running through the collective human experience.

Like many artists of similar renown, she’s also cozied up to the corporate world in her later years, tarnishing her bona fides as a critic of consumer capitalism. Her collaboration with luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton, unveiled in 2012, comes to mind. This from the artist who, at the 33rd Venice Biennial — as the first woman ever to represent Japan at the most prestigious event in the international art world — landed in hot water for trying to sell, at the bargain price of $2 each, the mirrored metal spheres that comprised her work “Narcissus Garden” (1966–). Such a daring and naturalistic recreation of a consumerist tragedy of the commons would ring hollow were she to attempt it today.

The historical gravitas of our contemporary American moment has been compared to and contrasted with the ’60s and ’70s when Kusama first made a name for herself. Third-wave feminism sizes up favorably to the myopic second wave of the 1970s, and Black Lives Matter organizers have drawn lines between their tireless work and the efforts of Civil-Rights-Era activists. One might be tempted to confine Kusama to the annals of history, to label her a historical artifact from which artists can learn but not develop. But the fact is that Kusama lives in no age; her artistic language has evolved and been evolved by a changing world, always speaking to it but never of it, about it or over it. This exhibition serves to remind us: if anyone can transcend the boundaries of time and space, it’s Yayoi Kusama.