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Step Inside These Weirdly Incredible Installations for an Out-of-Body Experience

PHOTO: Courtesy of David Zwirner, N.Y. © Yayoi Kusama

Stepping into the infinity mirrored rooms of Yayoi Kusama is nothing short of a transcendental experience—which is exactly what the Japanese artist intended.

Pumpkins and polka dots and phallic-looking tubers: acclaimed Japanese rebel-artist Yayoi Kusama’s latest exhibition transfers you into a wacky alter-universe that spans the breadth of her six-decade-plus artistic career. And it’s never been so fun. Or weird. From peep-holes revealing a kaleidoscopic world of light to giant mirrored rooms in which the viewer becomes part of the work themselves, her whimsy and artistic prowess that established her as one of the ’60s top avant-garde icons remain intact.

“I wanted to start a revolution, using art to build the sort of society I myself envisioned,” says the artist, now in her eighties. Noting the lines that wrap around the block to get into the exhibit, day after day after day, it’s clear the revolution has started. Lucky art lovers in six cities—Washington, D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland, and Atlanta—between 2017 and 2019 have the chance to experience this extraordinary artistic rebellion. Here’s a preview.

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PHOTO: Cathy Carver
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Violet Obsession

Hundreds of photographic reproductions of a purple rowboat surround a tentacle-encrusted purple rowboat, in what Kusama calls an immersive environment. Which sounds a little dry, considering the caprice of a phallic-covered purple rowboat as a motif. The artist created the tubular accents by stuffing socklike forms with cotton—a technique she used to decorate domestic furniture, a baby carriage, a ladder, and more. And let’s just come right out and say it—the effect is a tad on the sexual side, a fact that put her on the feminist forefront back in the ’60s. It’s said her approach embarrassed many male critics of the period, who ignored the obvious symbolism. Yes, it’s shocking. And it’s humorous, too. No wonder Kusama’s popularity has endured.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Cathy Carver
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Infinity Mirrored Room – Phalli’s Field, 1965/2016

Kusama embraces the infinity mirrored room as an artistic device to ponder such themes as infinity, immersion, and life and death. The size of a small bedroom, each one is lined with mirrors that reflect into each other and bring you into the artwork as well. Only two to three patrons are allowed in at one time. Red-spotted protrusions grow from the floor of the first mirrored room, which Kusama calls “a sublime, miraculous field of phalluses.” It’s the first mirrored room Kusama ever created, and right away, you get a sense of the artist’s avant-garde taste that tested the limits of 1960s society.

PHOTO: Cathy Carver
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Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever, 1966/1994

The refrigerator-size box doesn’t look like much from the outside, but peering through a peephole into the hexagonal chamber, one is immediately immersed in a field of colored flashing lights like a giant in a fairy’s kingdom. Across the way, a comrade museum-goer peers through another peephole, and together your facial images repeat into infinity. Love Forever is a re-creation of a room Kusama created in 1966 called Kusama’s Peep Show, where she staged group performances in her studio in the late 1960s.

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Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013

Hundreds of small colorful LED lights hang from the ceiling and flicker seemingly into infinity in this exploration of life and death. You can’t help but ponder your own existence in the universe as the colored lights flash brilliantly and then suddenly, all goes black.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York., © Yayoi Kusama
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Infinity Mirrored Room – Dots Obsession – Love Transformed Into Dots, 2007

You know something special is happening when you enter the next room, filled with larger-than-life inflatable pink balloons speckled with black dots. The red-haired artist herself sings one of her poems from an overhead monitor. Then you disappear into one of the balloons, where mirrors create an infinity landscape of more black-dotted pink balloons glowing from within. The scope changes with a nearby peephole exhibit that presents even more pink balls; these are micro-size. It’s an exploration of contrasting scales, large and small.

Book a Hotel

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Infinity Mirrored Room – All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016

Kusama sketched her first pumpkin in the 1940s, a motif that has repeatedly appeared in abundance throughout her career. In this mirrored room, she unites her love for glowing yellow pumpkins with polka dots, creating an entrée into a fantasy world. She once said, “I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland.” Yes, indeed.

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Infinity Mirrored Room – Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009

Golden lanterns and crystalline balls fill the endless black void of this mirrored room, capturing Kusama’s obsession with death and the afterlife. The lanterns are reminiscent of the Japanese ceremony of toro nagashi, in which paper lanterns are released on the river to guide the spirits of ancestors to their resting places.

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PHOTO: QAGOMA Photography
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The Obliteration Room, 2002 to present

At the entrance to this final room, you are presented with a sheet of colored polka dot stickers and invited to place them wherever you wish. The room, originally a stark-white rendition of a traditional living room, is covered with hundreds and thousands of colorful stickers placed by previous exhibit-goers. Kusama believes that this installation is a “way to free each individual and simultaneously reconnect them in mutual obligation.” In this sense, as we collectively obliterate the stark-white environment, we all become united, connected by polka dots.

PHOTO: Cathy Carver
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My Eternal Soul

The exhibit includes more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, some rarely seen before. Kusama once said she hopes to trace the “beauty of colors and space in the silence of death’s footsteps and the ‘nothingness’ it promises.” Even with such a bleak outlook, her vivacity and overabundant use of color keep us hopeful and alive.

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PHOTO: Tomoaki Makino
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Yayoi Kusama Herself

After studying traditional Nihonga painting in Tokyo, Kusama developed an interest in using optics, mirrors, electric lights, and kinetics in her greater-than-life fantasy worlds. She emerged on the art scene in New York City in the 1960s, hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Allan Kaprow. Her “happenings” on the streets, involving naked bodies and polka dots, were revolutionary. Suffering from psychological stress and depersonalization syndrome, she returned to Japan in 1973 and checked herself into a mental institution, where she has continued to live and work until today. She was essentially forgotten about for decades, until the Whitney mounted an exhibit in 2012, skyrocketing her back to fame. In 2016 she was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.