Yayoi Kusama: Accumulation and Obliteration
The idea was to obliterate individuals and to contain them in the eternal world.
- Yayoi Kusama, 1993
As is the case with many female artists, Yayoi Kusama’s career experienced obscurity for the majority of her lifetime. It’s within the last 20 odd years that a rediscovery and celebration of her prolific practice has reached Western audiences again. Born in the provincial town of Matsumoto City, Japan in 1929, by 1958, Kusama was living and working in New York City. It was during her tenure in New York that she created her first Infinity Mirrored Room, Phalli’s Field, in 1965.
It was during this time of her career that Kusama established her lifelong, obsessive practice. She experimented with drawings, paintings, installations, happenings, poetry, furniture, erotic publications and more. Throughout the evolution of her work, the visual motifs and themes of obliteration, accumulation, and eternity connect her avant-garde practice in New York City to the work currently on view in Kusama: At the End of the Universe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The exhibition at MFAH includes two of her infinity rooms, four paintings, and one sculpture on view. Kusama: At the End of the Universe is an intimate collection of the artist’s work made in her twilight years. All of the work included was created in the last 10 years after Kusama turned 80 years old. In this small collection of her work, most of her major themes are present: polka dots, tentacles, eyes, pumpkins, mirrors, and lights. This grouping of work is a meditation on life and death, obliteration of the self, eternity and the cosmos.
As I walked into the building, I was greeted by the comically large polka-dotted sculpture titled Pumpkin (2006). This smooth, over-sized, black and yellow squash with its graphic presence is the perfect introduction to Kusama’s show. It’s perceived mass and form signals a body, not necessarily anthropomorphic, but containing the frenetic spirit of life whilst the physical weight of an earthly vessel stabilizes the fruit.
The pattern of large black circles to small black dots on this pumpkin will continue to repeat itself throughout the rest of her work. The accumulation of polka-dots, of forms, of lights are included in the majority of her work spanning the last 60 years. This process of “accumulation,” as Kusama calls it — whether in forms, dots, and colors — was her way to impose and experience “self-obliteration.”
She realized early in her career — a story she often tells — that while she was making her “Infinity Nets” she would methodically paint or draw circles over and over and over again. Inevitably she would look up and keep seeing circles on the table, on the wall, on her body and before she realized she had started marking circles everywhere in her surroundings. Kusama said in the 1960s: “Polka dots can’t stay alone […] we become part of the unity of our environments.” This process was the start of accumulation. The more of a form or element she could accumulate into her work allowed for a loss of self and the achievement of self-obliteration.
In the line for the first installation room, Love is Calling (2013), I had the sensation of waiting to enter a space of otherness, a space forbidden, even possibly spiritual. This was my first opportunity to experience one of her infinity rooms. I would see the door open and six to eight people would be allowed in for three minutes at a time. As my anticipation grew, I was waiting to see how my personal experience of it would fare against the plethora of images I had already seen on Instagram and Facebook.
As the larger of the two infinity rooms, it’s a space with inflated fabric tentacles, polka-dotted, sprouting like stalactites and stalagmites from the floor and ceiling. The walls are lined with mirrors so as to lose the scale and space of the enclosed room. As you wander through the forest of glowing tentacles, you hear the sound of Kusama reading a poem she wrote in 2023 titled “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears.” Reading the translation of the poem in line waiting to enter, it’s a meditation of life and the fear of death, of suffering, and most importantly of love. She recites this in Japanese, and for those three minutes, I experienced a lull pulling me towards obliteration. Abruptly the back door opens and we are quickly ferried to the next line.
Due to its popularity and the logistics of such an exhibition, the viewer experience is highly structured as you’re guided from one enclosed space to the next in cordoned off lines. This will forever be the largest obstacle for the achievement of self-obliteration, the loss of self and the materialization of eternity within these infinity rooms. There are many arguments for or against these infinity rooms just being selfie backdrops, on whether these media interactive installations are changing the way we view and experience art. I have zero doubt that in the case of the infinity rooms they do change your experience, but the highly structured and defined way of interaction with these spaces is more detrimental to its intended outcome than snapping a couple of photographs. I barely had enough time to walk around and look much less to take a selfie.
The second infinity room, titled Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009), is much smaller and it’s more difficult to grasp a mental understanding of the space. Only one or two people are allowed in simultaneously as there is a small platform surrounded by water. The walls are lined with mirrors, the golden lights dim and flicker with each of the minuscule lanterns hanging at varying heights and distances. Their size and distance recedes endlessly as you have now been transported into eternity: seemingly small, illusionistically large, disorienting and beautiful. Are they spirits or ancestors? Could they be stars floating in the firmament? Are they neurons firing away in my brain? This self-obliteration creates a vacillating experience of the macro to the micro, of the universe to an atom, and vice versa. The lights brightly vacillate in complete darkness and will once again start the cycle. The cycle takes one minute, also the exact time you are allotted within the space.
I entered this room alone and although I was warned by the guard the lights would turn off completely, I was still startled at the abrupt darkness. This infinity room culminates and creates eternity and self-obliteration. I wanted to lose myself within this space in a way I didn’t in Love is Calling. This search for the eternal and our self within it keeps “flashing, disappearing, and again blossoming out in this Eternity,” as Kusama eloquently states. The accumulation of spots, of lights, of pumpkins brings the individual to the contemplation of the multitude. As these repeating elements encompass the body, appear on the body, and begin to erase the body, it dissolves oneself from the next, one object from the other, and at its best, creates a space to contemplate the presence and absence of consciousness and existence. I am not sure you can ask more of an artwork.
Kusama has labored for more than 60 years to achieve obliteration as a means to link existence, time and place. In a 1993 interview she stated that initially this impulse towards obliteration came from a deep sense of self-hatred. It’s apparent walking through her current work that she has found understanding and peace through the work she struggled to create. This later work doesn’t lack the energy, as is apparent in the four large paintings on the back wall, but it has the stability of message as she contemplates the end of her existence. Kusama writes in her poem included in this show: “Over many long years, with art as a weapon / I have treaded the path in search of love […] Now I think is the time to dedicate my heart to you, my dearest / Was the beauty of the end of one’s life nothing more than illusion?”
“Kusama: At the End of the Universe” will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through September 18.