Immersive installations remind us that experience matters most
In one of Yayoi Kusama’s manifestos, the now 90-year-old artist spoke to the nature of her art— self-destruction.
“Become one with eternity,
Obliterate your personality.
Become part of your environment.
Self-destruction is the only way out.”
But, for Kusama, self-destruction doesn’t carry a negative connotation. She’s not referring to isolation and defeat. Instead, the artist conjures the warm embrace offered by the eternal bonds of togetherness. To Kusama, forgetting yourself means releasing yourself, erasing the boundaries between individuals — taking your rightful place as nothing, in the infinite universe of everything.
The sentiment might seem dark, but Kusama doesn’t hide from shadows. Instead, she takes advantage of them. The significance of her philosophy reveals itself through her work, which you can see in Fireflies on the Water, Kusama’s site-specific installation now at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Kusama’s prolific and celebrated career as a contemporary artist spans nearly seven decades. Making a profound impact, she flirted with the mainstream throughout her life, attracting attention in the 1960s New York avant-garde and pop-art scenes while creating site-specific installations at museums for international audiences, gaining her well-deserved recognition. Most recently, Kusama’s popularity spiked through Instagram, as millennial art lovers posed for and posted photos from within her surreal and visceral installations. Even as Kusama was #trending, she blissfully ignored the buzz.
She has been busy, obsessively working in her Shinjuku, Tokyo art studio, a few blocks away from the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, her chosen permanent residence since 1977. “From the time Kusama was a little girl, she had these hallucinations,” explains Lauren Applebaum, the curatorial lead on the TMA’s current exhibit.
The dazzling installation uses 150 LED lights hanging from the ceiling, mirror-lined walls and a pool of water on the floor to transform a 12×12-foot space into a seemingly endless galaxy. Despite the stunning and otherworldly aesthetic, Kusama’s visual accomplishments do not solely define her work. Instead, the most vital aspect of Kusama’s work is her ability to conceive emotionally alluring spaces that produce profoundly impactful experiences. To protect this vision, visitors to Fireflies on the Water spend 60-seconds alone, during a scheduled time slot, fully immersed in the room.
“We wanted to create a very personal solitary, contemplative experience,” explains Applebaum. “[Fireflies on the Water] is one of her infinity rooms, which intend to enter Kusama’s psyche and to visualize those hallucinations. It creates a sense of empathy with the artist, . . . and also a magical experience for the viewer.”
Become part of your environment
Adjacent to Kusama’s exhibit is Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha’s exhibit, Between Light and Shadow, employing metal sculpture to produce breathtaking patterns of bouncing light and shadow. Unlike the solitary experience offered by Kusama, Agha’s three installations rely on community power.
“Agha’s installations… bring people together… [offering] a communal experience with the artwork . . . between the light and the shadow as a community,” says Applebaum. “Each encounter depends on who is in the room, and how the light and shadow interact with the bodies.”
Despite the experiential differences, Kusama and Agha’s share a fascination with the boundaries between the self and environment. Identity is a fertile philosophical ground for both artists, and Agha’s passionate exploration is evident through her installations.
“The nature of my work is letting you be who you are, and not being turned away because of that,” explains Agha. “My thought is to contemplate the nature of boundaries. If you fudge them enough, people can look over them . . . but my work is very much about having those hard edges become soft.” To make this possible, Agha credits the power of immersive installations.
“Drawings are very intimate, but installations [provide audiences a] sensory experience rather than just a visual (one). [The light and shadow] falls on their shoulders, on their body, and is something you remember forever,” says Agha. “It’s like when you’re looking at a sunset that’s stunning and how it makes you feel like the smallest being on this earth. It reorients our sense of scale and reminds us that the world is way bigger than we ever thought.”
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