Mirrors of Infinity. Review of “Yayoi Kusama. A Retrospective” at Gropius Bau, Berlin

Painter, sculptor, fashion designer, performer, provocateur: Yayoi Kusama is all these things at once. The Japanese artist’s diverse production is explored in the extensive solo exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Eine Retrospektive. A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe”. Hosted by Gropius Bau in Berlin and on view until August 15, the display marks the first attempt of a comprehensive retrospective of Kusama’s work in Germany. 

Exhibition photo from the Gropius Bau retrospective. Image credit: Bianca Callegaro.

The exhibition presents a chronologically ordered overview of an artistic production spanning over seventy years, tracing Kusama’s stylistic development and ever-evolving creative output, ranging from the famous installations and immersive environments to the lesser-known instances of her art. There is more to the renowned polka dots motifs and vibrant colours, and this comprehensive show, curated by Stephanie Rosenthal, is here to demonstrate that, as it presents a wide-ranging, nuanced view of Kusama’s work to German audiences. 

As in any proper introduction to a monographic retrospective, the exhibition presents Kusama’s art in relation to her personal life, opening with the question: who really is Yayoi Kusama? Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Kusama grows up in Japan, in its period of foreign expansion, and moves to Kyoto to study the nihonga and yōga techniques, respectively the traditional, local artistic form, and a Western-influenced style introduced at the time of Japan’s modernisation. In the late 1950s, Kusama moves to the United States, encouraged by the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, marking the beginning of her career in the West. As her reputation grows, Kusama exhibits her work in the USA and Europe, presenting a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing array of ideas that take shape in different media, including painting, collage, sculpture, video, performance, installations, fashion, literature and even music. 

Despite the diversity in modes of expression, a fil rouge seems to guide and link the artist’s production. The immersive environments, the large-scale installations and the intricate pictorial patterns all seem to aim to overwhelm the senses, with an obsessive, endless repetition of patterns, surfaces and images. Dizzying, blurry spaces, almost like a second, ethereal dimension, are created to reflect on the key concepts of infinity and self-obliteration. 

Within the exhibition framework, reconstructions allow viewers to experience Kusama’s innovative installations and presentational forms, making accessible and bringing together in one space the artist’s early exhibition projects in 1960s Europe, as well as her prominent solo exhibitions in the USA and Asia between the 1950s and the 1980s. The environments presenting important exhibitions are immersive in every aspect, as they not only reconstruct the physical installation and room layout, but are also completed with detailed factsheets about the original curatorial choices and, in some cases, with the same musical accompaniment. In addition to that, a timeline runs throughout the exhibition, illustrating the performative dimension of Kusama’s work and contextualising the parallels between her private life and career, with special rooms dedicated to specific themes or periods of her artistic production. 

The historically-accurate contextual reproductions are completed by documentary photographs and films, often depicting Kusama herself among her installations. Photos, such as this one depicting the artist in one of her installations, are emblematic of Kusama’s use of her own body “as a proxy for the viewer’s […] blurring the boundaries between the figure and surrounding world, seeking universal expansion into infinity”. Kusama described the concept of self-obliteration as the “materialisation of a state of rapture” she experienced, as her spirit was “whisked away to wander the border between life and death”.

Infinity Mirror Rooms – Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors | Hirshhorn Museum |  Smithsonian
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, 1965. Image credit: Hirshhorn Museum.

Emblematic of the exhibition, and of Kusama’s wide-ranging artistic career, is the gigantic installation titling this retrospective. A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe (2021) welcomes visitors in the scenic setting of the historical Gropius Bau building, marking, like an Infinity Net, the closure of a circle for the artist’s aesthetic and ideology. When asked which type of artist she is, Kusama describes herself as a sculptor, and indeed that has been her predominant focus since the late 1990s. This site-specific, mixed-media installation makes use of monumental polka-dotted inflatables, shaped like tentacles. As they tower above the viewer’s comparatively tiny body, they once again evoke the leitmotif of self-obliteration, of the individual dissolving and merging into the wider universe. 

With her large installations and Infinity Rooms, Kusama eliminates the separation between people and objects, inviting the audience to become part of the work together with the artist. This idea evokes relational art, reception theory, and the Barthesian concept of the “death of the author”, relatable to ongoing debate on contemporary art and the possibilities for audience participation it allows. Kusama’s work invites the public to get close to the art, to make (physical) contact with the exhibited works, in a multisensorial experience openly counterposed to the detached experience of the traditional museum’s “sacred aura”. On the other side, Kusama’s pioneering personal branding ability, as she intentionally stages and markets her artistic persona and multidisciplinary work, seems to be amplified by this retrospective, to the point of almost fostering a commercialised model of art exhibitions. In this “experience economy”,  the visitor/consumer passively experiences the spectacle of the art on show through the digital lens of social media, capturing the extra-ordinary, provocative nature of the installations for the sole purpose of constructing a public identity, of fabricating a cultural capital to be then exhibited on social networks. 

Yayoi Kusama, Women of Shangri-La, 2002. Image credit: Bianca Callegaro.

Thus, the concept of self-obliteration returns once again, mirrored in the visitors’ experience of art in an endless stream of social media content. Not only is the artist undergoing a process of self-obliteration, viewers themselves dissolve in the artistic universe created by Kusama, merging into the hypnotising patterns and overwhelming installations. Despite the tendency to foster spectacularity, the exhibition is ultimately successful in presenting a balanced, comprehensive overview of Kusama’s most prominent artistic moments. Her work is excellently contextualised and presented through a variety of materials, in this way overshadowing the commercial outlook that, at first glance, it seems to propose and finally coming to represent a thorough, accessible presentation of this contemporary Japanese artist. 

Published by Bianca Callegaro

Bianca Callegaro is the co-founder, editor and manager of Art Gate blog. She is currently studying History of Art with Film and Television Studies (MA) at the University of Glasgow. She is a columnist for Glasgow University Magazine and volunteers as a museum guide at the Hunterian Art Gallery.