Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Autism Can Make You a Better Artist: A Review of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, by Alec Frazier and Autistic Reality

Alec Frazier in The Obliteration Room. Every surface is covered in polkadots, including his nose.
Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of seeing the exhibit Infinity Mirrors, by Yayoi Kusama at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Yayoi was born in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan. She is 88 years old. At the time, Japan was still a very buttoned-down imperialist society. Etiquette and honor governed society to the extreme. Yayoi entered into this world on March 22, 1929. Her childhood was traumatic. Her father was incredibly lecherous, and Yayoi’s mother used her to spy on his affairs, including multiple sexual acts.

During her life, Yayoi has engaged in a great deal of outlandish work. At the height of 1960s counterculture, she composed a great number of performance pieces called Happenings. A great deal of them involved public nudity. One of them in the early 1970s was a highly illegal gay wedding en masse. She also at one point ran a gay bar as an art installation. At one point, she offered to have vigorous sexual intercourse with United States President Richard Nixon if he would end the Vietnam conflict. Yayoi’s disciples have included many individuals who have been influential in their own right, such as Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono.

Since she was a child, Yayoi has had vivid hallucinations which have reflected themselves in her art. She is also documented as having a number of other mental health issues, including but not limited to obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and a number of other conditions. Due to these conditions, Yayoi voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in the late 1970s. She has been a self-admitted guest of that facility ever since. It is practically an open secret that Yayoi has autism. Her moods, social tendencies, and other diagnoses lend incredible credence to this fact. This blog shall attempt to highlight Yayoi’s autistic dependence on order and her obsessions in her artwork as seen in her infinity rooms in Infinity Mirrors.

Yayoi has gone out of her way to make the entire exhibit disability accessible. She realizes that her infinity rooms are not accessible to some with mobility impairments, so she has worked with the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Gallery to provide complete 360° virtual reality tours of all spaces in the exhibit.

Violet Obsession

The first large-scale artwork we encountered was a dark, black room. In one end was a rowboat made out of phallic shapes, all in violet. The black walls, floor, and ceiling were covered with a pattern depicting this artwork. When one has autism, they often feel alone adrift in a sea of humanity, which they often feel passes them by. Yayoi grew up as a girl in Imperial Japan, which was absolutely stifling by today’s standards. She is an extreme feminist, and those burgeoning feelings would have made her feel even more alone at the time. As a girl and as a feminist, the phalluses and multiple pieces of her artwork represent the forest of masculinity she perceived to surround her. This boat travels through dark and dangerous waters, searching for a safe port of call. This artwork was made in 1994, at which time Yayoi was already an older woman. This signifies the fact that people may feel uncertain or lost at any time in their life. Yayoi once said, “If it weren’t for the art, I would have killed myself long ago.”

Phalli’s Field
Stuffed cotton, board, and mirrors
Collection of the artist
Completed in 1965 when the artist was 36 and re-rendered in 2016, Phalli’s Field is the original infinity room. The 1960s were a great time of sexual awakening, and Yayoi, always in the spirit to provoke, envisioned an endless field of phalluses, made from stuffed cotton and reflected in board covered with mirrors. The phalluses are white, covered in red polka dots, which the artist has always adored. The need to provoke or cause a scene is often felt by autistic individuals. It often serves to give us a feeling of legitimacy in society which we may otherwise lack. If it can be done in a novel and risqué form, then even better. The artist would often pose in this room, as if riding a sea of male genitalia. Yayoi certainly knew how to harness the sexual energy and thoughts of her artwork, as well as society’s perceptions of sexuality.
Love Forever
Wood, mirrors, metal, and lightbulbs
Collection of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore
This particular room, Love Forever, has been rendered in metal and lightbulbs reflected in mirrors on wood. It was first completed the year after Phalli’s Field, 1966, and re-rendered in 1994. The reflected light bulbs and metallic patterns form geometric shapes that constantly change color and pattern, endlessly radiating, aggregating, blinking, and spreading throughout the infinity room. One would think that an autistic person with a sensory disorder would find this room alarming and jarring. On the contrary, it is actually quite calming. Autistic individuals often find comfort in dim, soothing lights and geometric patterns. Yayoi is not a psychologist, but as an artist, she realizes which forms will please people. It is my firm suspicion that she worked on this room with a particular amount of personal satisfaction, as it most likely helped calm her always temperamental moods.

The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away
Wood, metal, mirrors, plastic, acrylic, rubber, and LED lighting system
Collection of the artist; The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles
A rather recent addition to the infinity rooms is The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, made in 2013. As usual, the mirrors are mounted on wood with metal details. From the ceiling hang endless ropes of colored LED lighting strands made of plastic, acrylic, and rubber. While all small, the lights vary in intensity and are of many different colors including white light, blue light, red light, and even green light. Just like Love Forever, the effect is immediately calming. However, instead of being pulsing and rhythmic, the effect is serene and wonderful. It gives the feeling of traveling in a jungle of magical plants and creatures. This infinity room provides great calm to me as an autistic individual, and the effect on other autistic individuals would be the same. The lights sometimes dim, and sometimes go dark altogether before lighting up again. The patterns in which they dim are at random, but the effect is still completely pleasing. Once again, one may suspect that Yayoi used personal experience to achieve the calming, therapeutic qualities of this room.
Giant, deep pink spherical balloons polkadotted in black.

The interior of the largest spherical polkadotted balloon.

Mirrored spheres and polka dots in the peep-in mirror dome.

Yayoi Kusama in a longer, light purple wig, ruffled red shirt with black polka dots, and black smock, singing to the audience.
 Love Transformed into Dots
2007, installed 2017
Vinyl balloons, balloon dome with mirror room, peep-in mirror dome, and video projection
Courtesy Victoria Miro, London

The largest display in Infinity Mirrors is Love Transformed into Dots. Yayoi, who has a lifelong love of polkadots, conceived of this detailed exhibit in 2007. It was finally installed in the Hirshhorn in 2017. It consists of a large room filled with deep pink vinyl balloons covered in black polka dots. Inside the biggest balloon is an infinity room lined as usual with mirrors on the walls, floor, and ceiling, and filled with spherical lanterns, also in deep pink with black polka dots. There is a peep-in infinity space inside a round kiosk that is made to look like another polkadot balloon. Inside this peep-in mirror dome is a dreamlike scene of mirrored spheres and polkadots all placed in front of a miniature infinity room made out of mirrors. The entire display inside the mirror dome is tinted deep pink by the light that glows within. Yayoi has stated that, to her, polkadots have always been incredibly calming and happy. It has been theorized that her love of polkadots originates from light reflecting off of the pebbles in the stream in her parents’ garden. For autistic individuals, many patterns can prove soothing. The perfectly round nature of polkadots, and the random playfulness with which they are dispersed, gives a feeling of peace to the mind. A deep, calming pink, rather than a bright, hot pink also serves to ease one’s mood. As an unequaled artist, Yayoi realizes the therapeutic qualities of her polkadots, and a projection of her seems to float in midair near the entrance to this installation, in which she sings a calming song to the crowd that passes by. There is no way that Yayoi does not know the psychological effects of her artwork, and the presence of this video proves it.
Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
Wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LEDs, and aluminum
Collection of the artist

The infinity room Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity once again has mirror covered wood with aluminum fastenings. It is somewhat recent, having been conceived of in 2009. It is filled with hanging lanterns made of plastic and acrylic and filled with LED lights. These lanterns give the room the feeling of being filled with floating candles much akin to fireflies. Much like The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, the lanterns randomly dim and go out, and also like The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, the overall effect is quite calming. It leaves you a serene feeling of peace in what might be a chaotic world. It is easy to have much reflection in the brief time spent in this room. Yayoi has had a great deal of chaos in her life, and she wishes to impart the gifts of peace and well-being.
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins
Wood, mirrors, plastic, acrylic, and LEDs
Collection of the artist
Yayoi has a great love of pumpkins. When she was a child, her family was well-to-do, and owned a plant nursery and seed farm. She finds the round shape and often large size of pumpkins to be happy and joyful. In this recent infinity room conceived in 2016, pumpkins are made of plastic and acrylic and filled with LED lights against the usual mirrors covering the wooden space. Each pumpkin glows orange with rows of black polka dots. The title, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, signifies the never-ending love Yayoi has for these gourds. Naturally, the field of pumpkins which have brought her such joy appears to be endless, a bountiful harvest for one’s positive emotions. Yayoi is fond of pointing out that her art is born of her obsessions, which are clinical. When one has obsessions, it is a very good idea to turn them into something useful. For example, I have an obsession with taking photos of things I see as noteworthy. I have used this obsession to further my career, and even to make this blog post. Yayoi wants to share her delightfully joyful pumpkins with the world.
The Obliteration Room
The exhibit ends with The Obliteration Room, a fully furnished room completely in white covered with polkadots. Yayoi has taken us on a grand journey. Her journey starts out unsure and perilous, and surrounded by dangerous elements of society such as toxic masculinity. Through this journey, she asserts herself, and engages in self-therapy by art. She finds means of bringing order to her life and calming herself, as well as making herself happy, and shares them with us as art installations. It is only fitting, then, that in this last installation, she asks us to share in the joy with her. The exhibition opened on February 23. It closes on May 14. By the time I saw the exhibition on April 24, it was mostly over. By that time, an endless sea of visitors had completely covered this once white room in simply wonderful, fun polkadots. I proudly covered it, and myself, in even more dots. In almost 90 years, this artist has seen the emotional condition of the world. She has had an endless journey trying to stay happy. As I, Alec Frazier realized about six years ago, so has she: happiness lies in our unique insanity. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of the world you belong to. Live life. Have fun. Enjoy!

This blog posting is the personal opinion of Alec Frazier and the professional policy of his advocacy firm, Autistic Reality. If you oppose it, please screen grab it! We are very proud of this opinion!


Mat McCollough said...

Outstanding descriptive blog, Alec!

anautismobserver said...

Your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Please personalize your blog’s description by selecting "About the list/How do you want your blog listed?" from the top menu on that site.
Thank you.
Judy (An Autism Observer)

Vagabonda Reads said...

Alec -- what an amazing account on your part, and your insight provides a valuable interpretation of Kusama's genius. Thank you.

Pa Trizia88 said...

Wow! I want to see all of this live and in friggin colour!!! Thx, Alec, for this wonderful review and summary of her art! I never heard of her before Rob had this Magazin cover and I once again realize how awesome he is and how literate and informed about the wonders of our world. And so are you!! Thx for this trip to wonderland!!!!