Chris and I caught Kusama: At the End of the Universe last weekend at the MFAH by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. The exhibit is comprised of two main installation pieces, Love is Calling and Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, as well as a series of paintings and a big Kusama sculpture that looks like a pumpkin.
Love is Calling
Here’s what the experience for Love is Calling is like. You wait in line next to a bunch of other museum goers, akin to the anticipation of boarding the latest amusement park ride. Near the front of the line, a gallery (flight?) attendant gives a brief overview of what to expect in the exhibit. Photos are welcome but no flashes, share them on Instagram or Twitter with #KusamaUniverse. You get 3-5 minutes in the installation, until the exit door opens and you are ushered back into the main gallery.
The installation room itself looks like a big white box in the bigger main gallery at the MFAH. When the door opens, you walk into a wall-to-wall-to-ceiling-to-floor mirrored room filled with amorphous tentacle-like sculptures bespeckled with Kusama’s signature polka dots. The tentacles are made of acrylic fabric with phosphorescent-colored lights inside, casting an ocean-like glow throughout the room. The room itself is pretty awesome. Upon entering, museumgoers excitedly rush around taking selfies and family photos as quickly as possible before they have to leave. It feels a bit like heading into the ballpit at Discovery Zone when you’re 8.
What would Kusama think of all this? Is her message lost in a sea of self-absorbed selfies? I don’t think so. She comes across as overwhelmingly compassionate toward all of the strangers in her space. We are what we are. Kusama’s voice recites a love poem in another language that she wrote to these anonymous people. Keep in mind that both of these installation spaces were conceptualized before the advent of selfie culture, or perhaps on the verge of it.
Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
The second installation, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, is a similar setup. You are only allowed 1-2 minutes inside the room, however you can go in with just the people you came with. The room is walled with mirrors, and a platform walkway into the center. Shallow water pools around the pathway. Little lantern lights are strung throughout the room. They flicker on with growing intensity before receding into darkness. It’s kind of like a smaller, warmer version of that room in X-men where Professor Xavier can trace mutants worldwide.
Anyway, as the glow of the lights grows in strength it’s multiplied into the mirrored space. The lights stretch out into the infinite, converging together in a glimmering galaxy before fading away from existence. And then the twinkle begins again.
Does experiencing these Kusama infinity rooms bring a sense of approaching the infinite? I think so. I loved this space! Maybe the privacy and quietude allowed for the mental and physical space to be able to feel. There’s a spatial lightness that I really dig in all of my favorite contemporary art. But maybe that’s just me – I love anything that feels like it’s floating, flying, buoyant, or breathless.
Outside the infinity rooms, a series of Kusama’s paintings lines the outer gallery walls. These large-scale paintings were all recently completed, and are part of an ambitiously large series, My Eternal Soul, that she devotes much time to in these later years of her life. Brightly pigmented paint in large brushstrokes sits on a metallic bronze underpainting. The marks sometimes include her infamous polka dots, however the paint application is looser and more organic than the geometric patterns of her youth. The paintings are filled with smiling, yet crying, faces and figures, flatly drawn from all sides of the painting. It’s challenging to distinguish up or down (other than the way it’s hanging), as if the canvases were sitting on a table and she walked around and painted from each side. There are also repeating rows of a person crying in profile, but the linear paint application reads more as a texture like hair or wind than a figure. I could sit on a bench and look at paintings like this all day.
I’m glad we caught the Kusama exhibit before it closed. We were just in time! You can still see the exhibit at the MFAH through the end of this weekend if you haven’t already.
As a closing note, here’s a translation of the poem Kusama recites in Love is Calling:
Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears
When the time comes around for people to encounter the end of their life
Having put on years, death seems to be quietly approaching
It was not supposed to be my style to be frightened of that, but I am
In the shadows of my loved ones footprints, distress revisits me at the dead of night refreshing my memories
Being in love with and longing for you, I have locked myself up in this “castle of shed tears”
Now may be the time for me to wander off into the place, the guidepost to the other world points to
And the sky is waiting for me, attended by numerous clouds
Overwhelmed by your tenderness that has always encouraged me
I have been searching for “love” in earnest taking my wish for happiness along
Let me call out and ask the birds flying about in the sky
I want to convey to them my feelings
Over many long years, with art as a weapon
I have treaded the path in search of love
During the days I have lived through keeping “despair,” “emptiness” and “loneliness” all to myself along the way
There were times when the fireworks of life “splendidly” adorned the sky
Dancing in the night sky in a myriad of colors, the fireworks sprinkled dust all over my body
I will never forget that exhilarating moment
Now I think is the time to dedicate my heart to you, my dearest
Was the beauty of the end of one’s life nothing more than illusion?
Would you give me an answer to this?
Devoting all my heart to you, I have lived through to this day
Hoping to leave beautiful footprints at the end of my life
I spend each day praying that my wish will be fulfilled
This is my message of love to you
Thank you for your beautiful footprints!