Yayoi Kusama, an eccentric 90-year-old Japanese avant-garde artist currently residing in an asylum in Tokyo, is coming to DC.
Actually, the artist herself isn’t, but her work is — starting February 23, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden are installing a series of Kusama’s sculpture, installations, and paintings: “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” The retrospective will include multiple installations, including Kusama’s famous Infinity Mirror Rooms and the more interactive The Obliteration Room, a completely white living room in which the artist invites viewers to place colorful dot stickers anywhere they please. As time goes on and more and more people interact with the work, the once-blank room becomes overwhelmed with near-hypnotic color.
Frankly, Kusama embodies a specific kind of old-lady cool that you or I could only ever hope to achieve (and has long before she was actually old). Her work is permeated with often autobiographical themes of psychology, sexuality, and feminism. Her signature polka-dot motif, seen throughout the bulk of her work, was taken directly from her hallucinations. Throughout the 1960s, she began to work with themes of sexuality, covering everyday objects such as ladders, shoes, even furniture with (not even a little bit vaguely) phallic protrusions, and organizing a series of “happenings,” in which she painted naked participants with colorful polka-dots — often in public places as a means to protest the Vietnam War.
The Hirshhorn’s exhibition has been so incredibly hyped amongst the penny-boarding NPR dad-bros of DC that the museum is now selling timed passes to view the exhibit, almost guaranteeing that, while visiting, you’ll be swept up in a throng of Kanken-toting instagrammers. However, it is, in my opinion, highly worth it — I was able to walk through a couple of Kusama installations in a near-empty Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and it was (at the risk of sounding like a Don-Draper-wannabe sadboy) breathtakingly eerie.
It is difficult to explain the pull of Kusama’s pieces — they admittedly seem, upon first glance, superficial and simplistic, appealing only on a surface level. But being surrounded by Kusama’s work is an inexplicably intense experience. Walking alone through her piece Repetitive Vision (1996), a mirrored room filled with white mannequins all covered in orange polka dots and grey wigs and nearly identical, I was struck in a way I have not been by any painting, book, movie, or song. It was vaguely baffling — how could a piece so seemingly void of deeper meaning affect me or anyone on such a personal level? And that’s the catch with Kusama — her own history and experience is ingrained in every part of the viewer’s experience. It catches you off guard — it is something that can’t be felt through a photo on the internet.
And it is different for everyone. As with every piece of art, no one reaction or experience will be the same (see: The Kramer, the enigma that was born out of the absolute BANGER that was the season three Seinfeld episode “The Letter”).