What do you do when you aren’t getting the attention you feel you deserve? You make a statement. Which is exactly what Yayoi Kusama did at the 1966 Venice Biennale. While your idea of ‘making a statement’ might mean writing a strongly worded email or giving up animal products, hers was more along the lines of rolling around the Biennale’s front lawn, which she had filled with silver spheres, while wearing a kimono. She also managed to sell several of the spheres to passersby for 1,200 lira each (about $2) before the police arrested her. 30 years later, the Biennale got back in touch. They wanted to feature her in the 1996 show. It may have taken a while, but Kusama finally got her due.
Fast forward to 2019 and Kusama is one of the most in-demand artists of our time. At 90 years of age, she continues to create and exhibit throughout the world. While you may know her as the ‘polka dot lady,’ as a friend said, or be familiar with her pumpkin sculptures, her oeuvre is expansive and varied, and she has an unbelievable knack for provocation.
Two such works that display her wide-ranging talents and creative methods are on view now at the newly reopened MoCA Westport, formerly the Westport Arts Center. Having reopened just a few weeks ago on September 22nd, the museum is a treat for anyone in Fairfield County or those looking for a day trip from New York. I was lucky enough to have the entire place to myself and was given a full explanation of each work by two helpful docents.
What you will find within the museum are two separate installations by the artist. In the first room, there is a box-like structure made from stainless steel. I was told by a docent that I could go into the ‘infinity room’ for two minutes. And that the room was lit by natural daylight that entered through six holes on each side of the structure. I wasn’t sure what an infinity room was, but I ducked through the small door and found myself alone in a dark space.
Inside, orbs of light extended in every direction as if someone had suspended me within the sky. I had definitely seen this on Instagram before, but the immersive experience was striking. It was as if Kusama had distilled a galaxy of stars into a single box.
The installation’s official title is ‘Where the Lights in My Heart Go,’ and was originally created in 2016. Kusama herself has called the piece a ‘subtle planetarium,’ and the interior does seem to mimic star projections. And yet, while in a planetarium we are often met with the enormity of our universe, Kusama manages to also bring a sense of intimacy to a room whose walls reflect infinity.
The other piece on display is Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, of 1966 Biennale fame. The original installation was meant as a critique of the art world’s exclusionary practices and its increasing commodification. Let’s remember this was created during the Warhol era. Perhaps Kusama was also making an illusion to the art world’s penchant for self-congratulation. After all, Narcissus did fall in love with his own reflection. But the work is also a prelude to themes that Kusama has explored in depth since 1966, such as physical limitations and the sublime. Like the infinity rooms, the balls reflect their surroundings, and two mirrored surfaces placed side by side produce an infinite number of images.
Something about being in a room filled with balls made me feel like a kid again, and I was tempted to roll around in them just like Kusama did once upon a time, but I’ll leave that behavior to the ball pit at McDonald’s. Besides, the docents made me promise not to touch anything.