yayoi kusama's infinity rooms are more than instagram opportunities
Australia's first permanent infinity room just got installed at the National Gallery of Australia, and it might be one of Kusama’s most nuanced, abstract works yet.
While they’re known for expansive, jaw-dropping beauty, seeing one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms in the flesh can be a terrifying experience. The first time I saw one was as exhilarating as it was nauseating: after waiting a few minutes in a small entryway, I was let into The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a large-scale infinity room installed in The Broad, Los Angeles. The feeling inside the room is not unlike that of being in the cosmos or in a vacuum; lights flash but sound is gone, and walls feel non-existent. The space around you really does feel infinite, and as the lights slow, the feeling of terror morphs into a feeling of elation and wonder. Experiential, immersive art is all the rage at the moment, but Kusama has been a master of the form for a long time, and her Infinity Rooms aren’t just designed for a quick photo; you look into these rooms and the whole world feels reflected in them.
That’s an easy fact to forget: while people continue to rage about the ‘Instagram-ification’ of art, Kusama’s works predate social media by decades. They might be perfect for a ‘gram, but there’s depth and scope to these works that resonates long beyond taking a 5-second snap. Since their genesis in the 60s as a way for Kusama to interpret her childhood and internal life, the Japanese master’s installations have shifted the way generations of artists, critics and viewers see and experience both art and the world. These rooms, from 1965’s Phalli’s Field to newer works like 2007’s Love Transformed Into Dots and beyond, have travelled the world and been seen by hundreds of thousands of punters. But although recent Kusama exhibitions have been held at Sydney’s MCA and Queensland’s GOMA, there’s never been a permanent infinity room installed in an Australian gallery—until 2018.
Earlier this month, Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia unveiled The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into Heavens, a new permanent installation that first appeared at GOMA’s Kusama retrospective a few years back. The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into Heavens might be one of Kusama’s most nuanced, abstract works thus far, comprising refracted elements of many of her previous infinity rooms.
Walking into The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into Heavens carries the same kind of trepidation as walking into The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, but for a different reason: from outside the room, all you can see is a bright glow and enticing warmth emanating from the entryway. Inside, it’s typically overwhelming; rather than a dark, mirrored space, Spirits of the Pumpkins features a dual spectacle. The first component of the room is the space’s design, all the walls painted brightly yellow with black vinyl dots transferred to every surface. In the centre of the room sits a cube tiled with large mirrors, surreally reflecting both the spotty wallpaper (and yourself) back into the space. Walk entirely around the cube and you reach a small peephole, through which you can see a darkened, mirror-walled space where plastic pumpkins glow from the floor.
The work is hard to describe by design; this is truly experiential art, and so no amount of words (or Instagram posts) can accurately display the scale or sensibility. The space inside the mirrored box is so jarringly different to what’s outside—so serene and enthralling compared to the trypophobia-inducing entropy of the walls—that it’s easy to get lost from afar, gazing down on the brightly glowing tubers. It’s undoubtable that naysayers will call the work ‘Instagram art,’ but the ‘The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended Into Heavens’ contains multitudes. ‘Spirits of the Pumpkins,’ like Kusama’s best work, reflects the jarring, beautiful chaos of the human mind, throwing your thoughts into chaos before putting them at peace.