Mesmerising, soothing, magic: Yayoi Kusama’s artworks are hypnotic installations, relatable for all, ethereal, and yet so simple if deconstructed to their components. The Japanese artist returns to the Tate Modern with two mirrored rooms and a new piece. Archive material on the decades-long career of Kusama punctuates the path of the dedicated section in the Southbank museum.
Right at the entrance, the visitors are welcomed by photographs of Kusama, from her childhood to the latest pop-coloured images of the woman in her studio. We are, in this way, introduced to her artistic vocation, revealed from a very young age, then pursued in New York where, after initial struggles, she gradually knocked down the barriers of indifference. Seeing how difficult it currently is to book a slot for the Tate exhibition – to the point where the gallery had to extend the opening to the public by months – it’s astonishing to read the long way Kusama has come. It’s a testament to her perseverance and creative growth that has matured over the years. On the boards in this first section, there are mentions of the hallucinations she suffered and how she started seeking recovery in hospital. The theme is a recurring one in the reflections of objects vanishing and multiplying in the eyes of viewers.
Purposely playing with the seen and hidden is The Universe as Seen from the Stairway to Heaven in the following chamber. Recalling one of her first installations, Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show of 1966, the mirrored sculpture has been realised especially for this exhibition. The parallelepiped contains circles within which infinite replications proliferate and fit with the spectators’ silhouettes as they peep in. It’s almost a game of hide-and-seek, trying to understand how our faces are captured, from where.
The Chandelier of Grief is the first infinity room, where a chandelier constitutes the centre, its flickering lights echoing against the mirrored walls of the tiny hexagonal room which appears to expand to the infinite. The feeling of loss and wonder mix. It’s a hypnotic experience, met with surprise. And still, simply with a title, Kusama recalls the duality of our being in this limitless space: joy and grief are feelings of equal power.
While experimenting with the medium and reflecting on the societal fabric she lived in, a few years after moving from Japan to the States, Kusama worked with photographer Eikoh Hosoe on Walking Piece. In this performance, the artist walked the streets of New York in full traditional kimono, complete with parasol. At the time, the aftermath of anti-Japanese propaganda circulating during the Second World War still lingered, and those stereotypes continued to play a considerable role. Hosoe’s framing highlights the alienation and loneliness Kusama draws the viewer’s attention to.
The second infinity room is nothing short of mesmerising. Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life opens up a cosmic space. Kusama shares the “self-obliteration” she was going through with her visual hallucinations and repeated dots. An uncountable number of suspended lights turn on and off in different hues with a reassuring timing, reflecting against the mirrored walls and the pool of water on the floor. The eyes wander, scrutinising the darker spots, finding where the glow goes and where it ends, but the extension of the space seems boundless, the mind finding a certain comfort in the dimmed atmosphere. It’s the quintessence of immersive artwork, created with the aid of pure cross-replication and modest elements: light, water and mirrors.
Kusama masters the art of illusion and creativity to produce engaging displays. Without practical actions required, more than a short stroll in and out, the minds and feelings of the visitors become part of the experience. Indeed, the experience demands their full integration – and the outcome is fascinating.