Feature

From pumpkins to polka dots: Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors soothe frayed nerves in D.C.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has taken D.C. by storm with a series of mesmerizing installations that immerse visitors in a hallucinogenic world of colour, patterns and mirrored rooms that go on forever. The sweeping retrospective has attracted thousands of visitors and proven a tonic for a city on edge and comes to Toronto next spring.

In the midst of a tense political climate, the Japanese artist's works offer a peaceful escape

'All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins' (Cathy Carver/Smithsonian Institution)

It's become the hottest ticket in Washington, D.C. — the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum, which closes Sunday. And the exhibit's main attraction by far has been the so-called Infinity Mirror rooms.

Step inside one of the rooms, and this is what you'll encounter as the door closes behind you. This particular room was filled with stylized pumpkins, one of Kusama's favourite motifs.

"Dots Obsession - Love Transformed into Dots." (Cathy Carver/Smithsonian Institution)

The exhibit is touring North America  and will have its lone Canadian stop at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto March 3 -May 27 next year. In Washington, it's been embraced by the many tens of thousands of people who've come to see it, as well as by Hirshhorn's chief curator, transplanted Canadian Sté​phane Aquin of Montreal.

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

The artist, Japan's Yayoi Kusama, made her name in the 1960s and became a star in the pop art scene worldwide. In the 1970s, she suffered a nervous breakdown and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she has lived (and worked) ever since. Kusama embraces her mental illness and has called her art "translated hallucinations."

(Marie Claudet/CBC)

To really understand her work, you need to literally walk into it. CBC was invited to tag along with a visitor as she toured the exhibit. The show is so popular that individual trips into any of the mirror rooms are limited to a scant 20 seconds.

Other installations are meant to be peered into from the outside. Here, you can stare for as long as you like.

(Paul Hunter/CBC)

Pretty much everyone who visits spends as much time taking photos as they do immersing themselves in the art. The show is a kind of selfie and Instagram heaven. 

(Paul Hunter/CBC)

Here's what you see when you peek inside that pink sphere.

(Paul Hunter/CBC)

Having toured a few of the mirror rooms, one woman laughed and told us it felt like she was on an acid trip. "You feel like you're a part of it," said another. 

The last room in the exhibition started out as a pristine, perfectly white space filled with white furniture. Visitors are encouraged to place brightly coloured circular stickers wherever they choose —and in so doing to create their own art.

(Marie Claudet/CBC )

(Marie Claudet/CBC )

The show has been so popular that lineups for day passes typically begin forming outside the museum at around 5 a.m. More than a few people told us it was absolutely worth it, not just for the art but also as a welcome break from the ugly politics found in so many of the city's other buildings these days. It'll be missed when it moves on.