The infinite dot
At 92, this extraordinary artist is still displaying an amazing urge to create. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama has lived through seventy years of art history, on which she has left her own inimitable mark. And that mark is primarily a dot – a polka dot, to be precise. Dots are omnipresent in Kusama’s work. The current retrospective in Berlin’s Gropius Bau covers almost 3000 square metres and traces the key creative periods in the artist’s life, including a series of works that she painted in recent months.
It is named A Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe after the installation in the central hall. Made of inflatable sculptures specifically for this space, it features a forest of pink tentacles, up to eleven metres high, naturally covered in black dots and stretching up to the high glass roof of the atrium. The public can walk on the 16 fat, smooth, upward-snaking branches – a fantastic experience.
Polka dots. Infinite rooms. Kusama’s artistic logic seems as clear as it is simple. But it would be wrong to reduce it just to that. Her infinite rooms, for example, exude a tremendous, immersive lure. Visitors to the exhibition can’t resist taking their cell-phones and photographing themselves again and again in the illusion of endless, polka-dotted, mirrored space.
There is something crazy about the artist’s compulsive use of polka dots. In fact, due to mental health problems, Kusama has been voluntarily living in a psychiatric clinic for many years. Her obsessions can certainly be sensed here. Following on from her drawings in the forties, her early watercolours show amorphous shapes like primordial beings in an underwater world within a vast ocean, and hint at the idea of infinity developed in her later work. Walking from room to room, you follow the evolution of Kusama’s work from her early paintings and accumulative sculptures to immersive experience spaces. There is also a section on her hitherto largely overlooked work in Germany and Europe.
Another significant feature is Kusama’s role as a performer in her own art spaces – shown in large-format photos and film material from the archives. Kusama’s works were first exhibited in Germany – in Leverkusen – in 1960; in 1966 she put on her Driving Image Show in the M. E. Thelen gallery in Essen. Crockery, tablecloth, life-size mannequins, furniture, even the potted plant, were all covered in dots and her now-famous ‘infinity nets’. It marked her first step toward completely merging her work with the surroundings to create an immersive effect. And the idea of infinity somehow dominates the atmosphere.
Eight of Kusama’s infinite rooms were reconstructed for the exhibition. Simone Schmaus, director of the Gropius Bau’s exhibition and production team, disclosed some technical details of the structures and materials used in the Yayoi Kusama retrospective in Berlin. “We closely consulted the Studio Kusama on how to build the site-specific work A Bouquet of Love I saw in the Universe in the atrium. It encompasses all 29-by-21 metres of the hall and consists of a ground surface and 16 differently sized, inflatable tentacles. The highest tentacle measures 11.5 metres, with a basic surface area of 2.5 metres. Studio Kasama provided precise instructions with a model of its dimensions and forms for its assembly.”
“The floor of the atrium usually lies three levels lower and was raised by means of stage platforms. This created space between the floors where all the ventilation and electrical equipment is installed. The tentacles stand on a specially made, digitally printed vinyl floor surface, 21 x 21 metres. The colours were matched to the pink and black of the tentacle material. The tentacles are made of a flame-retardant, stretchy plastic material, sewn together by hand in Japan. They contain in-built LED lighting, and every tentacle has a feed line to a ventilation unit.”
On the question of how working in close cooperation with Studio Kasama in Tokyo was, Schmaus says: “It was all highly professional, but purely digital, as the pandemic made on-site visits impossible.”
The firm Lechthaler Architecture was hired to help reconstruct the eight infinite rooms in the exhibition. The installation The Spirit of the Pumpkins – a yellow room with black dots – basically consists of two main components: the yellow, dotted shell of the space (on Gropius Bau room surfaces) and a centrally positioned mirror-cube with steps and a viewing aperture. The mirror-cube is a 2015 original by Studio Kasama, measuring 2 metres along each side. It arrived in pieces in Berlin with detailed design and assembly instructions. Studio Kasama also gave instructions for the colour of the surrounding walls, and even determined the position of the dots in a site-specific design for the Gropius Bau rooms. The Berlin venue sent views of all the walls, the reflected ceiling plan, and the floor plan to the studio in Japan, where staff tailored the dot pattern to the space.
To create seamless transitions and avoid breaking up the illusion, the walls, skirting board, ceiling and floor were given several coats of paint before the self-adhesive plastic dots of four different diameters were attached. The plastics used were Oracal 631 in matt black 070 on (double strength) ASLAN-HT, to guarantee good adhesion, especially considering the high attendance expected.
To ensure the artists’ design was faithfully transferred to the space, the wall and floor surfaces were divided into sections – in the model and in the space itself – and the design calibrated in 1:1. Lastly, staff of Studio Kusama personally fixed on the dots in tricky sections, such as around the mirror space and the steps.
The spatial installation The Eternally Infinite Light of the Universe Illuminating the Quest for Truth contains another mirror-cube original by Studio Kusama – from the year 2020. Measuring 6.15 by 6.15 by 3 metres when assembled, this, too, was sent from Tokyo to Berlin with detailed assembly instructions. Mirrors were used to cover the walls and ceiling inside, and highly reflective large-format tiles on the floor. The lights, equipped with variable colour LEDs, are installed in free-standing foam balls on chrome-plated, spiralling rods. As the mirror-cube is a Kusama original, no details of the materials are available for copyright reasons.
Clearly, the technical machinery of Yayoi Kusama’s universe is fully operating. And in this context, the most popular living artist in the world continues working untiringly on her oeuvre, with polka dots almost into infinity. It’s simply incredible.
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