State of the Arts: Kusama's 'Infinity Mirrors' Comes to Cleveland

Jul 13, 2018

It took more than 50 years for Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to finally get the recognition her male counterparts gained in the 1960s. Now people in Northeast Ohio can take in her work for themselves. On this week’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Mark Arehart goes to the Cleveland Museum of Art and steps into Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors.”

Before even getting through the front doors of the Cleveland Museum of Art, you get a sense of what’s to come. Towering trees are wrapped in bright red fabric dotted with white polka dots.

Inside, the line snakes back and forth to get a glimpse of Kusama’s famous mirror rooms.

Mika Yoshitake curated the exhibit when it opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. last year. Inside "Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity," the space is lined with mirrors and no bigger than a decent sized walk-in closet, but it feels like you're transported into a different world.

The Mirror Room

The sound of our voices echo across a seemingly endless reflection of twinkling lights.

"They're LEDs that are encased in Japanese paper and in these acrylic, cylindrical light bulbs," Yosihakte said.

Yayoi Kusama sits with her recent works in Tokyo in 2016.
Credit Tomoaki Makino / Courtesy of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama

The lights, inspired by Japanese lanterns, are a warm shade of yellow. The reflections seem like fireflies hovering above still water.

All of a sudden the lights go out, leaving us in the dark until the warm glow returns a few moments later.

It's art that begs to be experienced in person.

Yoshitake said the 360-degree visual experience of her mirror rooms is one reason Kusama's work has seen a surge in popularity in the last decade after years and years of her male peers garnering the headlines. 

Underappreciated Talent

"(In the 1960s) she was very active in the contemporary art scene and showed with artists like Andy Warhol," Yoshitake said, stepping out of the mirror room and into a gallery full of Kusama's almost tentacular sculptures and bright abstract paintings.

Yayoi Kusama 'Infinity Mirrors' features sculptures, paintings, photos and her famous mirror rooms.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

"She started doing the silkscreen wallpaper that Warhol was so much associated with, but she started them really early on. In fact he came to see her show in 1962 called 'Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show.'"

But while Warhol and other artists like Lucas Samaras, known for his own mirror rooms, were getting front page coverage, Kusama "herself was not well known at the time," Yoshitake said.

Instagram Famous

That's changed in recent years as her work has steadily gained fame. She's shown in Europe and across America, and Yoshitake thinks modern social media apps like Instagram have had a profound effect.

A screen capture of various photos with #Kusama on Instagram.
Credit Instagram

"People were posting pictures of her work (on Instagram) and her popularity just exploded," she said.

A quick search of Instagram shows hundreds of thousands of posts using #yayoikusma and #kusama.

Yoshitake thinks experiencing Kusama's work in person is perfect for modern social media.

"There's something about the images that people really gravitate towards. I think it is that idea, that mystery of not exactly knowing what you're looking at that people really want to expereince," she said.

Cleveland Connection

Cleveland is one of several stops for the exhibition, which moves to Atlanta after it wraps at the Cleveland Museum of Art. But there is at least one piece that no other venue will get.

Patrons can place bright polka dots all over a fully furnished room in the exhibition.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

The mirror room, "Where the Lights in My Heart Go," is the only space in the exhibition that uses natural light to create the endless mirror effect.

Patrons can enter the exclusive mirror room before they head through the rest of the exhibition.

There is also a special appearance of the lamp from the movie "A Christmas Story." It's in a white, fully furnished room where patrons can stick polka dots wherever they like.

Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" continues at the Cleveland Museum of Art through September 30.