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The Magic of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms

By Julia Kane

Last month, the Hirshhorn Museum announced that its exhibition One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection will be extended into spring of 2023, and last week they launched an online feature allowing visitors to reserve timed entry passes the day before their visit. (Previously, visitors would have to show up at opening time and wait in line in hopes of securing a pass for the same day.) I had been wanting to visit the exhibit, which has been open since April, all semester, but was somewhat deterred by the prospect of waiting in a long line for a small chance to see the exhibit. Now, with the new online ticket feature, I jumped at my chance and visited the Hirshhorn on a warm Saturday morning.

Yayoi Kusama, sometimes called the “Priestess of Polka Dots” for her colorful patterned clothing and artwork, is a Japanese artist known for her installation and performance-based works, especially her “infinity rooms.” Her long and prolific career (she is now 93 and still active in the art world) spans Pop art, Assemblage, Minimalism, and anti-war protest performance, as well as a multitude of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, and etching. She created her first infinity mirror room, Phalli’s Field, in 1965 and has since made more than twenty others. Phalli’s Field is one of two on display in this exhibition, along with My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, a much more recent work produced in 2018.

This exhibit was unlike any other I had experienced before. Firstly, it was strictly organized and sequenced, with stanchions guiding visitors’ path. Upon entering the exhibit, one can’t backtrack or move against the established flow of traffic. Secondly, there is the waiting. Though the limited number of tickets prevents the exhibit from becoming crowded, only two people at a time can enter each infinity room, necessitating a few minutes of waiting for each. The exhibit begins with a detailed timeline of Kusama’s life, from her childhood to the present, as well as a self-portrait etching covered in her signature polka dots. From there, the next room, covered from floor to ceiling in black dots on an orange background, houses one of her famous pumpkin sculptures. Then, the exhibit moves on to a waiting area, where I stood in line for a few minutes for my turn in Phalli’s Field.

In these waiting areas, as well as in the pumpkin room, an interactive feature allows visitors to access more information about the work on their smartphones. I have mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand, I prefer to use my phone as little as possible while in a museum, and there was plenty of empty wall space where this information and accompanying videos could have been displayed. On the other hand, this choice anticipates the instinctive tendency of modern visitors to pull out their phone when forced to wait more than a minute or two for anything, so this feature at least keeps them focused on the exhibit rather than their Instagram feeds.

While in the waiting area, an attendant instructed me on the rules for entering the mirror room and told me I would get thirty seconds inside. This, according to the Hirshhorn’s website, is a choice by the artist, but I don’t think it is long enough to appreciate the work- the craftsmanship, the spatial illusions, and the sensation the space evokes. It was otherworldly, breathtaking, and totally euphoric. Though it may sound cheesy, I felt, upon entering the room, a rush of serotonin I have rarely felt in other museum visits. This, I think, is part of Kusama’s appeal: she makes her works a wholly enveloping physical experience, not just a visual encounter. I could have happily stayed in Phalli’s Field for an hour, though I wish I had spent my limited time more on simply looking and less on taking photos.

While Phalli’s Field is full of bright light, the next room, My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, is dark, yet both have the same feeling of warmth. This time, the waiting area was also dark, and each visitor got one minute inside the room, which is full of polka-dotted paper lanterns lit from within by color-changing LEDS. This room was equally magical but less selfie-oriented, given that it was dark. The darkness also adds to the illusion created by the mirrors- at times I truly couldn’t tell which lanterns were right in front of me and which were reflections, which was a bit disorienting. The otherworldly feeling I had felt in the previous room was equally present, but in a different way; whereas Phalli’s Field seemed endless, My Heart was captivating because it created an enclosed, almost imposing space that pressed in from all sides.

Though the exhibit was shorter than I expected (both in duration and content), the minute and thirty seconds I spent inside Kusama’s mystical, imaginative creations was completely worth it. She is a master of distorting and recreating reality in a way that feels exciting and fun, and the Hirshhorn’s exhibit of her work offers a small taste that leaves me wanting to experience even more.

For more information, visit the Hirshhorn’s website

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