Queuing line after line through the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit, when you take the time to read about the boundary-breaking Japanese artist’s work you are overcome with a very relatable sense of fear. First fear of sex, then fear of death, then a resolution of both as death and existence lovingly become metamorphosis. Out of fear comes immortality, just like Kusama’s artwork and her reputation over decades of an evolutionary career.
Fear is of course a very relatable human experience, and the journey through #infinitekusama is like walking through her self-soothing medicine cabinet. Sculptural works and infinity rooms guide the viewer as Kusama, a celibate who enthusiastically participated with performance art in the sexual revolution, works through her fear of sex.
Not all of Kusama's thoughts are fear-mongering, though. According to Sarah Thornton in “33 Artists in 33 Acts,” Kusama experienced hallucinations of pumpkins speaking to her in a “generous unpretentious” way when she was young. The pumpkin infinity room certainly pays homage to these beings, which one imagines have been Kusama’s constant companion while she wrestles with her fears.
While the exhibit is very much a walk through Kusama’s internal world, the visitor is always a participant. Windows into small infinity rooms overpower the viewer with millions of lights or fantastic polka-dotted beach balls, with one view of the viewer’s eyeball lest she think she could hide. And the rectangular roped-off lines of people waiting their turns juxtapose with the observation that not a single Kusama work seems to contain a straight line.
As the exhibit progresses, wrestling with the fear of death becomes an increasingly potent theme in the infinity rooms.
In one, lanterns to guide the souls of the departed overpower the viewer with brightness at first, then entirely blacken. They come back, as do the departed in our memories, but never as bright as the first celebration of a life well-lived.
Finally, a fantastic overlay of sculptures created in the manner of Kusama's early work over bright two-dimensional paintings rounds out the visit, with one description noting that these works could depict the souls of well-loved departed animals. Each work has a floral element, which to me speaks more to love and fertility. It gave me the sense that even if Kusama’s fears have not subsided, she has played a trick on them and morphed them from the prospect of sexual violence and death to love and eternal life.