Selfie Obliteration: On Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" and radical self-awareness

A line spirals out from the fountain and wraps around the interior perimeter of the "Brutalist donut" that is the Hirshhorn Museum, spilling out onto the plaza beside the National Mall. Several hundred visitors are here—foreign tour groups, art students, tourists with selfie sticks, families with children—just before the museum opens, to see the traveling exhibition of wildly popular, 88-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's retrospective "Infinity Mirrors."

It's a Tuesday morning.

Once these visitors finally enter the museum, they have to wait in more lines in order to experience the exhibition's main draw: six shed-sized rooms, each housing one of Kusama's oft-Instagrammed installations comprised of lights or small objects endlessly reflected and repeated in the mirror-lined walls and ceilings. Erected inside the Hirshhorn's top-floor galleries amidst Kusama's sculptures and two-dimensional work, each installation holds only two or three people for 20 to 30 seconds at a time before the museum staff opens the door and ushers them out to let the next group in—a measure to meet the needs of the huge foot traffic.

Of course, I'm skeptical. An art experience that's mostly just waiting in lines to experience a total of three minutes of the show's supposed highlights—doesn't sound worthy of all the hype. And the hype is in growing abundance as more "Infinity Mirror" selfies pop up on social media; nevermind news coverage. If you use Instagram, you've most likely seen one or 200 of these selfies already.

I'm not anti-selfie by any means—I indulge regularly—and I know I can't leave the Hirshhorn today without taking one or two myself, and I do. If nothing else, it's a stamp on a virtual passport. I also feel a bit ill every time a critic dismisses a work of art just because the museumgoers of the much-loathed millennial generation have taken a liking to photographing themselves with or within it (see: Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate' in Chicago, to name one popular example).

But when what seems to be the primary take-away of a work of art is the viewer posed within or in front of it, the actual piece reduced to a background or vehicle, I have to wonder what more there is to get out of it, especially if the flattened, phone-captured impressions of the artwork are more interesting than the experience itself.

My doubts are quickly extinguished by an infinite field of glowing yellow pumpkins. The door of Kusama's most recent "Infinity Mirror" room, 2016's 'All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins' (at the advice of the Hirshhorn's PR rep I started with the room at the end of the exhibition to move ahead of the traffic), closes behind me, and the sculptures light up the otherwise darkened box. As the illusory space recedes in the reflected reflections, the edges of the gourds fade to leave only a plane of black polka dots reaching into darkness. And my body, too, shrinks and fractures until it's just dots.

It's a spectacle for sure, but rather than exhilaration I feel an unexpected calm—something about the vastness of the illusion rubbing up against the actuality of being confined to a box is comforting, like a deep breath. I'm only in there for a deep breath, anyway.

After 20 seconds, the door opens, and I'm wondering what would happen if I stayed in there for 20 minutes or more. I imagine, rather than the potency of the illusion would petering out, it would grow stronger as the physical memory of finite space faded. The accumulating sense of losing myself, dissolving into the environment—what Kusama has long called "self-obliteration" in reference to a range of her work—seemed to peak just before the door opened. This happens again, more dramatically, in the other darkened "Infinity Mirror" rooms 'Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity' and 'The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,' wherein small LED lights hang from the ceiling to create a kind of sci-fi nightscape, the occupant's body barely detectable in the dark.

We're only granted blips of infinity; the gulf between space and time is jarring. But for those waiting in line, on the other side, 30 seconds feels like plenty of time. Thankfully, waiting in line here is not simply waiting in line. Surrounding the mirror rooms are over 60 sculptures, paintings, and works on paper as well as archival materials from the artist's 65-year career.

I'd like to return and ditch the lines just to revisit some of these pieces, like the mammoth "Infinity Net" paintings (one of which—'No. Green No. 1'—I've visited often at its permanent home, the Baltimore Museum of Art). For these, Kusama would paint without rest, allegedly, for 50 to 60 hours at a time, using her body to mechanically push a single color across a massive black canvas in miniscule arched strokes. The physical toll of this process was Kusama's impetus for using mirrors to create a similar expansiveness—an arch among others in the artist's career the Hirshhorn uses to frame the exhibition, creating a compelling account of the varied forces of illusion and infinity. Though the viewer is not literally reflected in the "Infinity Net" paintings as they are in the "Mirrors," the body's relation to the web's honeycomb field is persistent as it absorbs the surging collision of macro and micro, positive and negative space, urging a less direct but equally cogent self-awareness. And, as the eyes trace the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of globby brushstrokes, with no focal point to anchor them, the viewer inherits Kusama's own body memory from pushing the paint around the canvas. Again, we're at once radically conscious of ourselves and feel as if we're disappearing into the pattern.

Bringing her penchant for repetition and tedious labor into the third dimension, Kusama's notorious "Accumulation" assemblages offer a more literal bodily presence—specifically, a phallic one. Hundreds of cock-like soft sculptures sprout from panels, armchairs, and a whole rowboat, covering each in a thick layer of organic growth. The purple dicks coating the rowboat, the center of an installation titled 'Violet Obsession,' are again repeated by way of photographic copies of the same boat repeated all over the room's walls, stretching the field of pattern beyond the object. The phalli reappear, red polka-dotted and infinitely multiplied, in one of the the "Infinity Mirrors"—the artist's first—'Phalli's Field' from 1965. As I experienced a sense of sublime calm in her latest installation and feel again here, Kusama claims to have created these swaths of phalli as a source of comfort, an antidote to her fear of sex by way of repetition.

This leads to another important triumph of the exhibition: The curators resisted the popular reading of Kusama's work in strict terms of her history of neurosis. Kusama has voluntarily lived at a mental hospital in Tokyo for about four decades and has experienced hallucinations since she was a girl, and too often this aspect of her life, critical as it is, has been sensationalized to a degree that limits the understanding of her work. Marked by repetition and detail, Kusama's practice has been described as "obsessive compulsive," and is more often framed as the product of the artist's self-care than as standalone artworks with something to offer the viewer—dismissing the idea that art can, in fact, transcend its source. But the curators here seem to have deliberately avoided this exhausted interpretation of Kusama's career; mentions of the artist's mental history are minimal in both the wall text and exhibition catalogue, focusing instead on the phenomenological effects of the artwork.

I'm drawn to the less recognized pieces from Kusama's career, like her intimate collages from the '70s, which, though much smaller in size compared to other work on display, emit a powerful, dark glow like evening light through stained glass. The pieces were created during a period of relative obscurity, soon following Kusama's permanent return to Japan after her first burst of fame in the United States during the '60s (she reemerged as an international celebrity after her participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale as the first artist chosen to solely represent Japan). The collages call back to Kusama's pre-fame works on paper, also on view, which exude a similar luminosity and cavernous, almost mystical interiority.

All this and more is to be experienced while waiting in line to enter the "Infinity Mirrors," although that's not to say this work is displayed merely to entertain those who wait—the mirror-less pieces in the exhibition are worth a visit on their own. Still, some critics have found the reward for their patience too small, concluding that an experience of an "Infinity Mirror" room that's so brief "is no experience of it at all," as argued by Philip Kennicott in the WaPo review "I went to Kusama and all I got was this lousy selfie."

But at the Hirshhorn, I find that not only can a few seconds prove a powerful aesthetic experience—as many of life's fleeting moments do; transience often lends itself to the sublime—but that aesthetic experiences and selfies can, to an extent, coexist.

The selfie is no substitute for the experience (which is why museumgoers should use their 20-30 seconds wisely). When I take a photo in one of the mirror rooms, I do lose part of that heady self-awareness; it's immediacy is partitioned by a screen, the endlessness' depth flattened. But that compression also expands outward to reach another kind of infinite space—virtual space—where my body and the objects surrounding it and the millions of reflections surrounding them repeat endlessly across space and time. And there's a lot to be said for taking selfies, no doubt a tool of social capital, in a space dedicated to the obliteration of the self. But many who go to the museum to take a selfie (and perhaps would not go at all otherwise) may actually get more out of the experience than just a photo. And when the thousands of selfies are essentially uniform, like they are in the case of the Kusama exhibition, it's another kind of self-obliteration: Becoming one small dot in an immeasurable pattern.

The difference is merely tangibility; and whether tangibility in an increasingly intangible world is of importance is absolutely worth consideration. But for now, in these few seconds, make time for both.

"Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors" is up at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. through May 14 and will travel to five other cities in the U.S. For more information, visit hirshhorn.si.edu.

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