Kusama’s work takes CMA to ‘Infinity’ and beyond

CLEVELAND — Picture yourself floating in the cosmos like the Star Child of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or immersed in a psychedelic fantasia.

Instead of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” it’s Yayoi in a Patch of Polka-Dotted Pumpkins.

That’s the sensation created by the mirrored rooms that are the star attractions of “Infinity Mirrors,” a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s work that is on display through Sept. 30 at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sensation is an appropriate word in more ways than one to describe “Infinity Mirrors,” which has attracted huge crowds and gushing praise since it first opened last year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. CMA is the fifth of sixth locations to feature the work and the only midwestern venue.

“This is probably the most complex show this museum has ever done,” said Reto Thuring, CMA’s curator of contemporary art. “There are a lot of logistical challenges because of the nature of the rooms, which are really architectural pieces in themselves, and just the shear size of the show.”

“Infinity Mirrors” spans the career of Kusama, 89, a Japanese-born artist who first came to the United States in the late ’50s. The show ranges from photographs and other artifacts of the polka-dot “happenings” she staged in New York in the 1960s to large acrylic paintings and soft sculptures created in the last decade.

Mika Yoshitake, curator of “Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn, said the Cleveland show includes a larger collection of recent work than any site yet, and each exhibition is different.

“The architecture of each museum really determines the layout of the exhibit,” Yoshitake said. “The mirror rooms are seen as the anchors for the show. At the Hirshhorn, it was a round, donut-shaped space that didn’t have any walls. Here the architecture is different, with the wide open atrium and the two spaces.

“I have an ideal way in which the work is experienced in terms of the narrative, but each venue has been completely different in way we’ve begun and ended the show. Kusama’s works can be experienced in a non-chronological way.”

There are some other local touches as well. One element in each location has been the “Obliteration Room,” an all-white space, where visitors are given a sheet of polka-dot stickers in different colors and encouraged to place them wherever they want. In addition to the white furniture, bicycle, bookshelves and other artifacts that are universal, the room includes an all-white version of the leg lamp from the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” which was filmed in part in Cleveland.

Emily Leibert, associate curator of contemporary art at CMA, said, “From the beginning, the staff was in charge of collecting objects (for the ‘Obliteration Room’), and a leg lamp was at the top of the list.”

The most popular feature in every location have been the mirror rooms, starting with 1965’s “Phalli’s Field,” Kusama’s first installation using mirrors to transcend the physical limitations of her art, according to the press kit.

Some art critics have attributed the popularity of the show to the Instagram and Snapchat age. Visitors would be hard-pressed to come up with a more eye-catching backdrop for their selfies than Kusama’s creations. The fact that it’s been a tough ticket to get in other cities only adds to the cachet of getting a snap inside one of the mirror rooms.

Yoshitake said she believes there’s another reason for the show’s popularity.

“There is this fascination with virtual spaces and virtual reality,” she said. “What’s in these rooms is the feeling of infinite space, but they’re all analog, they’re tactile. There’s no digital projections in there and I think that is kind of novel for the millennial generation. Yet you can sense this infinite space in a very visceral way. You forget these were started in the ’60s, so she really was a pioneer.”

The combination of light and mirrors in those rooms creates a feeling of infinite space.

But while the space feels infinite, the time visitors have to experience it is finite to the extreme. To accommodate the expected crowds, visitors are limited to as little as 20 seconds in those mirrored rooms. Staffers stand outside the door with a stopwatch.

For those who must have a selfie, “Phalli’s Field” is brightly lit and best suited for grabbing a quick snap. “Love Forever,” which visitors peer into rather than enter, doesn’t have the same rigid time restrictions as the other rooms and also offers some possibilities.

Photos aren’t allowed inside “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.” As for the other three mirror rooms, use the limited time available to experience the work rather than wasting it on a blurry, underlit camera-phone image.

The Cleveland Museum of Art staff has created a pamphlet called “Kusama Connections” designed to encourage visitors who came for “Infinity Mirrors” to investigate other works in the museum’s permanent collection

“They can see the works in the permanent collection through the lens of the experience they just had,” Leibert said. “We are anticipating some first time museum visitors. The hope is they’ll come for Kusama and then come again when Kusama is not here.”

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