Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective
All of the exhibition texts for Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective are available as audio files in this playlist on the left-hand side. Please use your own headphones in order to listen. You can also scroll down this page if you would like to read the extended exhibition texts, which are also available in the exhibition booklet.
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929, Matsumoto, Japan) is one of the most important artists of our time. Yayoi Kusama. A Retrospective brings together artworks made over an 80-year period to present an overview of the artist’s oeuvre. It traces the impact of her work in Germany and Europe, as well as in Japan and the United States, from the development of her early paintings and sculptures to her immersive installations.
Growing up in Matsumoto during Japan’s foreign policy of expansion in the 1940s, Kusama’s family earned their living by running a seed nursery. In 1948, at the age of 19, she moved to Kyoto to study the traditional nihonga painting style at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. Later she trained in the yōga technique, a form of Japanese painting in a Western style associated with the rapid modernisation of Japan. Moving to the United States in the late-1950s, having been encouraged by her letter correspondence with the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, Kusama’s reputation in Europe grew in the 1960s. Her work was shown in Amsterdam, Bern, The Hague, Essen, Milan, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Turin and Venice. The Gropius Bau’s chronological retrospective includes eight reconstructions of Kusama’s signature exhibitions. Titled “Made by Kusama”, they demonstrate not only her artistic evolution from 1952 to 1983, but also the precision with which she personally shaped her own shows. Each of these rooms was realised through extensive art-historical research based on texts, old photographs and floor plans to reproduce, for the first time, Kusama’s original exhibitions.
Kusama has worked with numerous media such as painting, collage, sculpture, video, performance, installation, fashion, literature and music. Her enveloping environments, including her Infinity Mirror Rooms and large-scale installations – the newest of which is shown in the Gropius Bau’s atrium – aim to overwhelm the senses. Infinity and self-obliteration are the main recurring themes in Kusama’s work. Obsessive patterns of dots and nets cover surfaces with ceaseless repetition. Mirrors create dizzying spaces that double our gaze. Using her own body in her installations as a proxy for the viewer’s, Kusama blurs the boundaries between the figure and surrounding world, seeking universal expansion into infinity.
Alongside documentary photographs and films, a timeline runs through the exhibition to illustrate the performative dimension in Kusama’s work and to contextualise her life. Important events and exhibitions are delineated with archival images of the artist. The large photograph hanging above the staircase depicts Kusama posing with a painting from her recent series, My Eternal Soul, which can be seen as a complete group in the last room of this exhibition.
All room texts can also be accessed online at this QR code.
Matsumoto Shows, 1952
Made by Kusama
This first room rebuilds one of Yayoi Kusama’s historical exhibitions. As with all of her shows, Kusama’s hand was directly involved in both selecting works and shaping their presentation. The artist’s first two solo exhibitions took place in March and October 1952 at the First Community Centre in her hometown of Matsumoto. The works were fastened to threads and hung in two compact rows over dark brown fabric. They call to mind kakemono, a type of upright-format Japanese scroll painting.
A number of the original paintings shown in Matsumoto can be seen in the Gropius Bau’s retrospective. These works on paper use ink, watercolour, tempera and pastels, and depict swirling or dotted patterns that are between abstraction and figuration. Their titles describe flora and fauna, for example, Tree, The Bud and The World of Insect. Kusama observed and sketched flowers and animals in the alpine landscape of Nagano, which would have informed these drawings.
The March and October presentations were so similar that it is now difficult to distinguish between them in photographs. Yet Kusama showed more works in this second exhibition, due to her fascination with immersing the viewer in a Kusama world, surrounding our bodies with art. She wanted to reach beyond the limits of the body and language. As she once said, “I draw because I can’t express in words.”
There are two large photographs in this room. One depicts Kusama sitting in her parents’ house, surrounded by her early watercolours and wearing a self-designed shirt. The second is an installation shot of the first exhibition in Matsumoto.
Yayoi Kusama began making Infinity Net paintings in the late-1950s. These paintings use a ground-breaking visual language that expresses the idea of endlessness. Delicate repetitive semi-circular brushstrokes create lace-like patterns that cover the canvas entirely, suggesting an expansion into infinity. The first Infinity Net paintings from 1958 looked like ghostly monochromes, with white oil paint applied over a black ground. The idea of infinity has been foundational for Kusama’s on-going aesthetic and mind-set.
The technique and style of these paintings alludes to Kusama’s hallucinations, which began when she was around ten years old and have continued ever since. Seeing light flashes, fields of dots and auras, she sensed these patterns bleeding from her mind into the world around her. She became interested in the concept of self-obliteration, where her body would dissolve to become seamlessly connected with the surrounding environment.
Kusama has described painting in obsessive episodes, marked by the merging of her skin with objects: “I would cover a canvas with nets, then continue painting them on the table, on the floor, and finally on my own body. [...] the nets began to expand to infinity. I forgot about myself as they enveloped me.”
The large photograph in this room depicts Kusama in 1961, standing by her large-scale Infinity Net painting at Stephen Radich Gallery in New York. At ten meters wide, it covered an entire wall from floor to ceiling and was so large that a strip had to be cut off before it fitted the room.
Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, New York, 1963
Having moved to New York in 1958, Yayoi Kusama struggled with a lack of money and visa issues, which led to depressive phases. Moving into a loft at 53 East 19th Street, she met the Minimalist artist Donald Judd (b. 1928, Excelsior Springs, Missouri, d. 1994, New York), with whom she became close. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show was Kusama’s first immersive environment, which was presented at Gertrude Stein Gallery in New York’s Upper East Side and played a crucial role in making Kusama’s works known.
The gallery spaces were situated downstairs, with visitors entering through a narrow, dark corridor. Emerging into a brightly lit space with black walls and ceiling, a large wooden rowing boat sat in the room, covered with white protrusions. The walls were stapled with posters that depicted an image of this exact boat.
The work is an early example of Kusama’s Accumulations sculptures. Comprised of fabric that was stuffed taught with cotton, their forms are reminiscent of coral, the root structures of plants and phalli. Kusama saw this recurring motif as a way to express what she described as “a fear of sex”, which resulted from a childhood trauma. Her mother encouraged her to spy on her father, during which time she witnessed him having extramarital relations.
The large photograph in this room depicts Kusama sitting naked on the boat on the occasion of this exhibition. She placed herself into the installation to express her will for the visitor’s own body to be immersed in her Kusama world.
Floor Show, New York, 1965
Floor Show opened in November 1965 at Castellane Gallery in New York. Comprised of two rooms, the exhibition featured Phalli’s Field, which was Yayoi Kusama’s first Infinity Mirror Room. Working with the architect Allan Buchsman, she covered every surface – except the ceiling – of a roughly 25 square-metre octagonal room with mirrors, creating mis-en-abyme (a copy of an image within itself) reflections in an infinitely recurring sequence.
When it first opened, viewers were invited to enter barefoot and were encouraged to experience a suspension of normal time and space by treading a path towards infinity. Walking down a narrow trail that separated the room into two, the floor was consumed by Kusama’s Accumulations sculptures – soft white phallic shapes covered with red dots. The gallery’s press release described the work as “a joyous fairyland of organic growths”.
Each dot signified Kusama’s concept of self-obliteration. She eliminated the separation between people and objects so that both she and the audience were part of the work. As Kusama said: “For Phalli’s Field I wanted to show that I am one of the elements – one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe. In this work, by burying myself within the infinite polka dots, my mental power is strengthened as a polka dot.”
The large photograph in this room depicts Kusama posing in a red bodysuit lying on the fabric phalli in the Infinity Mirror Room. This stage in her career was immensely productive and her artistic persona and presence had already become an integral part of every exhibition and performance.
Driving Image Show, New York, 1964 & Milan, 1966
Made by Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s fourth exhibition in New York, Driving Image Show, opened in 1964 at Castellane Gallery. She created an immersive experience that included her Accumulations and macaroni sculptures. Having stuffed and sewn soft fabric tubes for two years, Kusama attached these phalli to an armchair, rowboat (from Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show), sofa, chairs and ladder, as well as tables, shoes and bowls. One of the Accumulations was even squashed beneath an iron.
Paintings were hung on the walls, made using Airmail stickers and egg-cartons. Macaroni spilled out of cooking pans into the space. The exhibition’s opening even featured two barking dogs wearing macaroni jackets. The surreal environment expressed what Kusama described as an “obsession with sex and food”.
One large photograph in this room portrays Kusama wearing a black dress and pretending to eat from the table. Another depicts an installation view of the rowboat. The third shows Kusama in 1966 at Galleria d’Arte del Naviglio in Milan.
Kusama lived in Milan from late-1965 until early-1966. She was based in the studio of artist Lucio Fontana (b. 1899, Rosario, d. 1968, Varese), who is known for founding the art movement Spatialism and was one of Kusama’s supporters. From his studio, she developed works for her 1966 Driving Image Show at Galleria d’Arte del Naviglio. Mannequins painted with Infinity Nets stood tall in the gallery alongside Compulsion Furniture (an armchair with phallic protrusions) and items of macaroni clothing sprayed silver or gold. A ladder and suitcase were also painted with Infinity Nets.
Driving Image Show, Essen, 1966
Made by Kusama
The next stop for Yayoi Kusama’s European tour after Italy was Essen. Her Driving Image Show was exhibited at Galerie M. E. Thelen – Kusama’s first show in Germany, which opened in late-April. It was substantially different to the New York iteration and had five subtitles: Sex Obsession, Food Obsession, Compulsion Furniture, Repetitive Room and Macaroni Vision.
Three rooms were carpeted and the Beatles’ song ‘Michelle’ played in the background, enhancing its immersive atmosphere. Two large Infinity Net paintings hung on the walls, accompanied by mannequins of red, blue and pink, spotted with yellow and green polka dots. Macaroni covered the floor, as well as a coat, jacket and handbag.
A documentary of the exhibition was shot by WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) for German television, and Kusama can be seen with the camera team in one of the large photographs here. Another one shows the installation view of Driving Image Show in Essen. She used the environment as a stage set for performances, her body becoming one with its surroundings. Kusama’s gesture to this was one of self-obliteration, but it could equally be read as pre-empting today’s selfie culture, centralising our individual subjectivity.
This exhibition resulted from Kusama’s professional relationship with Udo Kultermann, Director of the Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen, who shaped the progress of her European career after reading reviews of her first New York solo exhibition at Brata Gallery in 1959.
Everything in Europe
Having already been invited to participate in six group shows in the Netherlands in 1962, the occasion that ultimately drew Yayoi Kusama to visit Europe was the opening of her exhibition Aspects of Contemporary Eroticism at Internationale Galerij Orez in The Hague, Netherlands in 1965. One of the large photographs here depicts Kusama standing with a macaroni handbag for the show. She was also featured on the cover of the journal De Nieuwe Stijl, which critically reflected on the Orez presentation, significantly raising her profile.
Kusama’s relationship with Europe decisively contributed to the development of her career in the 1960s, with shows in Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Milan, Venice, Turin, Stockholm, Bern and Rotterdam, among other places. In fact, Kusama participated in more shows in Europe than in the United States during this period. She was generally included in group exhibitions of the Zero and Nul movements – all of whom were interested in perceptions of space and visual illusions. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show was part of nul nineteen sixty-five at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which Kusama then donated to the museum.
At the invitation of artist Ferdinand Spindel (b. 1913, Essen, d. 1980, Neuenkirchen), Kusama subsequently went to live at the Künstlersiedlung Halfmannshof in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, in April 1966. She had a small exhibition there, though mainly prepared for her show at Galerie M. E. Thelen in Essen.
At the group exhibition balans art fair in Schiedam’s Stedelijk Museum, Netherlands, in 1967 Kusama presented a number of her Accumulations sculptures including eight pairs of shoes, some of her new Infinity Nets paintings and a tray laden with Coca-Cola. The other large photograph in this room shows her pretending to drink from one of the golden bottles.
Narcissus Garden, Venice Biennale, 1966
In 1966 Yayoi Kusama also worked on her contribution to the 33rd Venice Biennale at Lucio Fontana’s studio. She did not have an official invitation to present her work, although the Chairman of the Biennale Committee granted her permission. She installed Narcissus Garden on the grass outside the Italian Pavilion, with Fontana financially supporting the work’s production with 600 US dollars.
Comprised of 1500 silver mirror orbs – a selection of which is presented here at the Gropius Bau – together they formed a reflective field. The large photograph in this room shows her throwing an orb into the air. The work’s title references Narcissus from Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection in spring waters – self-obsession resulting in his death. Kusama’s interest in this myth was not morbid. Instead she was concerned with how endless mirroring can facilitate self-obliteration and the merging of body with the environment.
Dressed in a shimmering golden kimono, Kusama stood amidst the balls and sold them to Biennale visitors for just two US dollars each. She also handed out leaflets with a text by Herbert Read about her work. Many artists during this period adopted the idea of art multiples, aiming to reach a broader spectrum of buyers to make art accessible. However, the Biennale office prohibited Kusama from continuing with the trades, equating her activities with ordinary “ice cream sales”.
Kusama finally received an official invitation to represent the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, which was curated by Akira Tatehata.
Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show, New York, 1966
Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at Castellane Gallery in March 1966 had two alternative titles: Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show. Presenting a hexagonal Infinity Mirror Room, the viewer experienced the space by peeking in through two windows on opposite sides of the room. Painted an unassuming black on the exterior, Kusama scrawled her signature in white over the structure, which is visible in one of this room’s large photographs.
Inside, Kusama created a psychedelic, hypnotizing world. She installed mirrors on the floor and walls, reflecting flashing lights of yellow, green, blue and red, which were fixed to the ceiling. These sped up continually in nine cycles, forming 17 different patterns in total that recalled an infinite honeycomb structure, while music by the Beatles played in the background.
Writing for the publication ARTnews, the critic Peter Schjeldahl described his experience as, “a depthless, receding blaze of lights – in the farthest distance a shimmering Milky Way – plus a thousand or so reflections of your own face and that of the person at the other peep-hole.”
Kusama distributed buttons with the slogan Love Forever at the exhibition opening. The other large photograph in this room depicts the artist seemingly merging with the room, wearing a red body suit. Describing her interest in self-obliteration Kusama said: “This was the materialisation of a state of rapture I myself had experienced, in which my spirit was whisked away to wander the border between life and death.”
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration: Performance and Film
Yayoi Kusama explored the line between art and life to shape her performances and films. An early Happening took place in 1966 on the sidewalk in front of her 14th Street loft in New York. Dressed in black, she plaited her hair and lay atop her Accumulations sculpture from Phalli’s Field.
A year later, Kusama made the psychedelic 16mm film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, which she produced with the artist Jud Yalkut. The film depicted her in a dreamlike state merging with her environment. In one scene, she affixes polka dots to a horse and rides away; in another she is submerged among water lilies, painting the water’s surface with disappearing dots.
Creating psychedelic audio-visual light shows in underground clubs from 1967, Kusama too performed so-called Naked Body Festivals and Orgy Parties in New York’s public squares. Causing public controversy, she painted peoples’ naked bodies with polka dots, as demonstrated by the films Love-In Festival (1969) and Flower Orgy (1968).
The 1960s was a period of political change in the United States. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1961 and three years later the Civil Rights Act made segregation illegal. Kusama had an enduring anti-war stance. Her Happenings took on a political dimension, as part of which she participated in protests against the Vietnam War. She even wrote a letter to Richard Nixon for one performance, which said: “Let’s forget ourselves, dearest Richard, and become one with the Absolute [...] and finally discover the naked truth: You can’t eradicate violence by using more violence.”
Love Room, The Hague, 1967
Made by Kusama
Yayoi Kusama staged her second solo exhibition, Love Room, at Internationale Galerij Orez in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1967. For the first time she covered a whole room with multi-coloured polka dots. The main focus was five mannequins – three red, one yellow and one green – which were covered with fluorescent paint and polka dots of various sizes.
Alongside the dots, which coated every single surface of the walls, floor and objects, the room also featured a table with paint cans and brushes. As visitors entered, they were bathed in an ultraviolet light, illuminating the dots, which would have appeared to be floating.
As part of the opening, her Happening in a catholic student centre of Sociëteit Novum in Delft featured figures from the art world including museum directors, critics and artists. They removed their clothes, painting one another with dots while experimental music played. At five o’clock in the morning the police broke up the event. Her Naked Demonstration at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam just two weeks later led to the director Hans Paalman almost losing his job. Kusama also organised small-scale Body Festivals at the Flight to Lowlands Paradise festival in Utrecht and at the Bird’s Club in Amsterdam.
The large photograph in this room depicts Kusama mimicking the mannequins, merging her body with the environment in an act of self-obliteration. She said, “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka-dots, we become part of the unity of our environment, I become part of the eternal and we obliterate ourselves in Love.”
With the intention of working outside of the art market, as well as nurturing an interest in clothing from a young age, Yayoi Kusama pursued fashion design. Her clothing was closely tied to her artistic work and was informed by the period’s cultural influences, including the hippie movement. The large photograph in this room shows her surrounded by models in her New York fashion institute.
Kusama made use of found clothing as early as 1962, covering shirts, coats and handbags with macaroni and spraying them gold or silver. She later decorated items with fabric phalli. Professionalising her fashion studio by the mid-1960s, she aimed to expand internationally. By 1969, her designs were sold at four hundred stores throughout New York, including Alexander’s and Bloomingdale’s.
Kusama’s clothes connected to the personal, social and political liberation enacted in her Happenings. She cut polka-dot-shaped holes into her See Through Dresses and used translucent materials to accentuate nakedness. In line with her Accumulations sculptures, she developed a series of fabric phalli dresses. Untitled (Dress) (c. 1968) is an iconic example: a tunic dress sprayed pink with monochrome fabric phalli. Kusama regularly wore this to her own Happenings.
Designing her Orgy Dress in 1968, the piece allowed several people to wear one dress. Machine-sewn in brightly coloured dotted or floral patterns, the unisex piece could be worn by two to 25 people. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were even photographed together in one.
Return to Japan
Returning to Japan in 1970 for two months, it was Yayoi Kusama’s first time back in the country after years of working in the United States and Europe. She aimed to bring the sexual revolution to Japan, wanting to stage a Naked Happening at Osaka’s Expo ’70. The plan included presenting a ‘Nude Panorama’ in front of the National Diet Building in Tokyo and a ‘Homo Parade’ at the World’s Fair. Kusama was taken to the police station on 13th March 1970 and was repeatedly prevented from performing by the Japanese authorities.
She moved back to Japan permanently in 1973 after her health began to deteriorate, also believing that it was more interesting and peaceful there at that time. The hallucinatory episodes that she experienced as a child reappeared and her mental breakdowns became a continual pattern. The artist decided to live permanently in a Tokyo-based psychiatric clinic in 1977, where she continues to produce works today, as well as at her studio.
Kusama’s aesthetic style and psychological state revolves around repetition, obsession and self-obliteration. It defines her singular artistic sensibility, which derives from what the Japanese critic Tono Yoshiaki called the “post-Hiroshima generation” – after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States.
Her first solo exhibition since leaving the United States was mounted at the Nishimura Gallery, Tokyo in 1975. During this period in Japan, Kusama also expanded her interest in literature, publishing an autobiographic novel in 1978, Manhattan Suicide Addict, about her life in 1960s New York. From 1984 until the late-1990s she published twenty novels and short-story collections, including two poetry books.
Encounter of Souls, Jardin de Luseine, Tokyo 1983
Made by Kusama
Ten years after permanently moving back to Japan, in 1983 Yayoi Kusama presented Encounter of Souls at the Jardin de Luseine. The former cultural centre in Tokyo had distinctive Art Déco and Jugendstil interior design. Kusama realised the exhibition throughout the entire building to create an immersive environment, positioning her art on tables, cupboards, fireplaces, the piano and also spreading fabrics over the staircases.
Kusama played with her entire visual repertoire including the Infinity Net paintings and polka dots, as well as the pumpkin motif – which by this stage had become one of her signature forms – Accumulations sculptures and phalli. She organised a slideshow of black-and white photographs of her Happenings, which couldn’t otherwise feature in the show, and invited the photographer Shigeo Anzai to give a talk.
While her use of materials varied, gloves were a recurrent theme. She referred to them as “protuberances”, which pointed towards her sex obsessions. The works explore touch and touching – a mass of hands suggesting an intimate relationship or by contrast, a nightmare. This exhibition was Kusama’s way of showing what it would feel like to live in a complete Kusama world. She said: “Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality. Become part of your environment. Forget yourself.”
The large photographs in the next room present installation views of Kusama preparing the show.
Return to Painting
Made by Kusama
The recognition of Yayoi Kusama’s work slowly grew again from the late-1980s, given that her initial success had lessened in the 1970s. Kusama understood globalism and wanted to develop a strong network in the art world, which eventually led to her being visible on an international scale. The work became increasingly spectacular in the 1990s and began touring around the world, achieving widespread praise. She commented, “Time is finally turning a kind eye on me. But it barely matters, for I am dashing into the future.”
Kusama returned to painting in the early-1980s, using bright colours and bold forms. Anthologising her own work, she created repetitive patterns with many variations of nets, dots, biomorphic shapes and phalli. The paintings from this period are optically dazzling with a sense of acrylic flatness and muteness that indicates a signature Kusama brand. She also used multiple canvases, which together created polyptychs – works with numerous panels – that filled rooms.
The Fuji Television Gallery in Tokyo began to represent Kusama in 1982. With her reputation solidifying, by 1987 she had received her first retrospective at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art in Fukuoka. It was widely covered by the media, including Fuji Television, NHK and TV Tokyo, who all reviewed Kusama’s work positively.
Two years later, her first retrospective in the United States opened at the Center for International Contemporary Arts in New York, alongside which she was the first Japanese artist to appear on the cover of Art in America.
Overflowing the Limits
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s used oil paint, while in the 1980s and 1990s she mainly used acrylic paint. The lace-like net structures of the early works were replaced by more hard-edged and vividly patterned paintings, which appear less abstract in form. Dots, nets and phalli also look like shapes in nature such as bubbles, leaves or vines. They are their own ecosystem.
The bold motifs from these paintings increasingly appeared in Kusama’s fashion pieces in the 2000s, blurring the line between her different media. In one of this room’s large photographs, Kusama can be seen wearing a dress with an identical design to the painting that she stands before.
Becoming progressively ambitious with her Accumulations sculptures, these began to look like surreal, psychedelic plants. Hand-sewn phalli expand from textural stems, bursting into a mass of soft pollen. Kusama has emphasised that these images come from deep in her mind, saying: “It arises from [...] the repetitive image inside of me. When this image is given freedom, it overflows the limits of time and space.”
Having sprayed many of her smaller Accumulations sculptures with silver and gold paint in the 1960s, Kusama expanded her vision in works such as Dressing Table (1990). The bright silver piece sees phalli emerging from every surface. Only the mirror is left bare, within which the viewer’s reflection is absorbed, becoming part of Kusama’s world. The second large photograph in this room shows Kusama looking into this same mirror.
The series Love Forever is comprised of fifty large-scale canvases, 37 of which are presented here at the Gropius Bau. Yayoi Kusama made these over a span of three years, from 2004–2007. They are defined by a two-dimensional flatness. Hung together as a group, the monochrome field of canvases becomes an environment that oscillates between abstraction and figuration.
These black-and-white drawings are made using felt-tip pen, with the final work printed as silkscreen on canvas. Kusama’s iconic motifs recur throughout. Dots and squiggles of different sizes consume the canvases. Countless eyes stare at the viewer with dilated black pupils. A person’s profile is drawn repeatedly. They could also be seen as landscapes, little houses in row upon row or the waves of the sea lapping at the shore.
These works are windows that provide insight into Kusama’s world – the forms that she imagines and the hallucinations that she has long experienced. Her fields of dots and nets, as well as her large-scale environments all result from these visions. Kusama asks questions such as, “Did infinite infinities exist beyond our universe?” With this series she seems to actively ask, where do we start and where do our surroundings end?
Kusama’s reiteration of pattern, which is at the core of her approach, is an attempt to flee her own psychic obsessions. By choosing to paint her vision of fear, she too tries to neutralise it through self-obliteration: “I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape.” This, perhaps, is her salvation.
Infinity Mirror Room – The Eternally Infinite Light of the Universe Illuminating the Quest for Truth
For more than 50 years, Yayoi Kusama has conceived of Infinity Mirror Rooms that completely immerse the viewer in a Kusama world. This new work includes light sources of flashing LEDs and mirrored spheres, illuminating both the space and viewer. As Kusama once described, she creates “a tsunami of art capable of swallowing the entire world.”
Kusama’s first Infinity Mirror Room was Phalli’s Field, which she made for the exhibition Floor Show at Castellane Gallery in 1965. This has been reconstructed here at the Gropius Bau, creating reflections in an infinitely recurring sequence. In 1966, Kusama followed this with a hexagonal Infinity Mirror Room at Castellane Gallery, Kusama’s Peep Show or Endless Love Show. This too has been reconstructed here at the Gropius Bau, and viewers can peek in through two windows.
Kusama’s interest in immersing the viewer also goes beyond her Infinity Mirror Rooms. The salon-style grids of her painting series Love Forever and My Eternal Soul respectively build an infinite space of pattern, form and colour.
With her new immersive installation, Kusama pursues the idea of self-obliteration – the individual merging with the wider universe. Her poetics constantly shift between the cosmic, psychological, spiritual and artistic. She envelopes the body in a way that emulates today’s fascination with virtual reality. For Kusama, infinity is a mesmeric cosmic space, one that is bigger than any one person and into which the audience can dissolve.
My Eternal Soul
Building upon her signature style of nets and dots, in 2009, Yayoi Kusama began her on-going series of acrylic-on-canvas paintings, My Eternal Soul. Pulsating colours delineate biomorphic shapes that are semi-figurative and could be hieroglyphics, plants or phalli. Amoebas meet jagged teeth; eyes are repeated upon faces in profile; dark circles float in amorphous space, suggesting death and barrenness, but also life, joy and the unknowable beyond.
Placing her canvases flat on a table and working at close proximity to the surface, Kusama initially paints a single colour as a ground, after which she uses various brushes to draw her obsessive patterns. Initially intending to produce roughly one hundred works, to date she has amassed well over seven hundred, of which 62 are presented here at the Gropius Bau. Kusama has no plans to stop her daily process of making, with each painting usually taking between one and a few days to produce.
Interested in continuing to create an immersive experience for her audience, Kusama has shown the paintings in salon-style grids, hung with the edges closely touching so that the eye can move seamlessly across the field. This gives our bodies a sense of being within an infinite space of colour and movement.
Kusama’s work has come full circle. The only difference from the beginning of her career, when she was photographed in Matsumoto surrounded by her works in 1952, is in the staging of that moment for the camera. Today, the viewer is invariably plunged headfirst into an all-consuming Kusama universe, where the outer world fully mirrors her inner world.
Imprint Audio Guide
Speaker German texts: Sithembile Menck
Speaker English texts: Ruth Rosenfeld
Recording: Matthias Hartenberger
Sound editing: Felix Petzold
Project lead: Louisa Elderton, Clara Meister
Assistenz / Assistants: Lennart Salek Nejad, Luis Kürschner