Surely you heard the roar of MoCA Westport bursting open its doors this past September for its inaugural exhibit: dual Yayoi Kusama installations!
Yes, there were two Kusama installations, which is a notable first for the entire east coast. MoCA exhibited Where the Lights in My Heart Go (WLMHG) Infinity Room (2016), a 10’x10’ room made of steel and aluminum, shined to a mirror finish, alongside her Narcissus Garden (NG) (1966), a collection of 1,200 shiny steel orbs arranged on the floor.
One “experiences” an infinity room by standing inside, door closed, which I did. Yes, it was incredible. Small bits of light trickled in through holes drilled into the walls, creating a universe of never-ending reflection. As I pondered the infinite spots of lights in the darkness, two thoughts swirled through my mind:
1. Something this cool is in Westport?? MoCA is a world-class art destination? WOAH.
2. How did they get it here?
Kusama, 90, is considered the most successful living female artist in the world (Sotheby’s). Her infinity rooms have sparked a frenzy among art lovers around the world. Scores of curious spectators wait in line for hours to experience a room. Point of fact, within one week after ArtNEWS posted information about MoCA’s exhibit its waitlist ballooned to over 2,000 people.
Kusama’s work is influenced by childhood hallucinations of pattern, intrigue with infinite space, and phallic shapes. She’s best known for her patterned pieces, like piles of spotted squash and fabric phallus-covered sculptures.
Born into a wealthy family in Japan, to an abusive mother and a philandering father, she was an avid artist throughout her childhood. Her mother destroyed most of her works, presumably because art was too pedestrian for their class.1 In 1958, at age 29, she fled to New York City with her only money sewn into the lining of her kimono.2
Kusama became one of the few females among venerated male Pop artists such as Warhol, Klee, and Claes Oldenburg. She pioneered a number of artistic techniques, only to have them appropriated by those male peers whose work appeared at more established and prestigious galleries.
In 1962 Claes is rumored to have purloined her ground-breaking use of fabric sculpture six months after seeing her work, Accumulation No. 1, an upholstered chair carpeted with phalluses.3 In 1966 Warhol created his popular Cow Wallpaper, the repetitive image of a cow papering a room. Kusama had done the same thing with a rowboat two years earlier with Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show.4
The most devastating incident, though, was in 1965, when Kusama created Endless Love Room, the first of what would become her infinity rooms. Seven months later, Lucas Samaras, an artist who had only created small sculptures, inexplicably exhibited a mirrored room at the Pace Gallery which was an overnight sensation.5 While the appropriation of techniques is nothing new in the art world, Kusama was enraged by his blatant rip-off of her idea. Enraged and embittered, she attempted suicide by jumping out of a window.6
Unable to gain traction in the NYC art scene, depression forced her to move back to Japan in 1973.7 In 1977 she checked herself into a mental hospital that specialized in art therapy. She suffered from a “co-occurrence of bipolar disorder with psychotic symptoms and obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia… [and] Graves disease.”8. Today it’s widely believed that her drive to create art has kept her alive. She continues to live in the hospital and works in her studio across the street, creating new art and overseeing the installation of existing works.
To date, Kusama has created 31 iterations of infinity rooms, each owned by museums and private collectors. Many of these rooms have been hauled around museums and galleries for years. Surely this is no easy task, given the size, weight and value. WLMHG weighs a whopping 8,800 lbs.
While the price tag on these rooms vary and are rarely disclosed, I did find that the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired a large room (presumably the largest at that time, but I can’t confirm) in 2018 for $2 million plus $300,000 for insurance and shipping.
4.4 tons? $2 million dollars (possibly less. But still.)? Who are the super-human individuals who whisk these hulking metal works from venue to venue?
The art world is unusually hush-hush about deliveries, fearing such mundane information might demystify an exalted work. Which makes sense. For instance, knowing one’s favorite rock star just clipped his toenails sort of detracts from the magic of his show.
We do know that SRI Fine Arts delivered all 10,800 pounds (the weight of WLMHG plus 1,200 2-lb spheres from NG) of polished hardware to MoCA. Three fine art handlers from London’s esteemed The White Wall Company, flew to Westport and spent three days re-constructing WLMHG. After disassembling the room from MoCA, the same handlers flew to Colorado to install the room at the Aspen Art Museum.
The mirrored orbs of NG arrived at MoCA in a pile of enforced boxes. White-gloved SRI Fine Arts reps placed them around the gallery according to Kusama’s specs. A Kusama expert then sent photos to her in Japan. The next day the SRI reps arrived at MoCA with instructions for alternate placements. They moved them, the expert sent photos. For four more days they re-arranged steel balls until Kusama was satisfied with the organic groupings.
WLMHG left MoCA this past November. However, NG remains until February 26, 2020. But if you missed the infinity room don’t worry, there’s more to come.
MoCA’s spring exhibit is equally as stunning and interesting, featuring world-renowned designer-turn-artist Helmut Lang. After leaving fashion to explore fine art, a 2010 conflagration of Helmut’s design archives inspired him to haul the remaining archives-two decades worth of his clothing-into an industrial shredder. With the remnants and resin he created column after column of sculpture.
“MoCA Westport has an amazing heritage [Westport Arts Center],” explains Amanda Innes, Executive Director. “We have the hunger to take what we offer to the community to another level.”
And, yes, they are.