Yayoi KUSAMA! @ Cleveland Museum Of Art 2018 - The Definitive Review

The KUSAMA Experience, a proper perspective of art, art appreciation and happenings.

In mid-2017 I heard in a casual conversation that Yayoi Kusama was going to be on exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2018. I was unfamiliar with her work, so it barely passed notice in my mind, but in fact the seed for a happening had been sown. Little did I realize what it would lead to at the time. Throughout the rest of summer I really never heard the name Kusama again and so it was meant to be. When you sow a seed it often sits fallow in the ground as a season or two passes until it can break through the ground, grab the air and the light of day and grow.

It was in the fall when I next heard the name Yayoi Kusama, it came as an innocuous little email from the Cleveland Museum of Art. “We will be bringing Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors" to the CMA in 2018." I have been a member/patron of the Cleveland Museum of Art for decades. Not only is it one of the great art museums in the world but it really does have enough important works gathered from throughout the centuries that it can give you a great understanding on every form of art, with some of the most important masters from each period, sorted into rooms, and it is free for all. My wife and I love to go and spend an afternoon in one room, taking it all in, appreciating each work, the period it is from, the style, and the fact that it is right there in front of me, thanks to another patron and the hard work and dedication of the CMA. They bring in special shows that are not free, but none should be missed, and your chance to know this schedule along with the new pieces added to the collection is more than enough reason to be a member, and I am sure more than enough to make you an art fan, and eventually a patron of the CMA. So, the sprout was beginning to break through.

A month later was the KUSAMA invite unveiling a little more about the show, and that tickets would be on sale in 2018. Well while still just a sprout this tickle was enough to make my wife, and many others wonder who is Yayoi Kusama and look her up. Born in 1929, the Japanese artist has worked in Contemporary art, Minimalism, Feminist and Pop art. I for one was not even aware of her. She is known for her Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Installation art, Performance art, Film, Fiction, Fashion, Writing-- nothing rang any bells, but that is true for me for many artists, even famous ones. One of the things I love about art and museums is the chance to always discover new things and explore and learn more. Well, it was months until tickets were available, it slipped back in my mind as the holidays approached.

Finally in late December early January came the email “KUSAMA TICKETS ON SALE.” Now getting excited I opened the email to learn they would be available mid-January, and I, like thousands of others thought, "Finally." Some might have read on, but in the era of ADD, ADHD and other focus-challenged maladies of the 21st Century, I did not. I would eagerly wait until January 16 and order my tickets. Because now I was sure I was in for another trip to the museum, something I always love to do. Lunch on the Eastside, maybe Tommy’s on Coventry, a place I had spent so many days in the 60s and 70s. This would be an art date with the woman I so deeply love. YES, an art date!

January 16 I woke up at 8am, made coffee, and got online waiting for the clock to tick until 9am when the announcement would surely come, and direct me to the page to buy tickets. I had tried early the night before thinking they would put the page up, I could check it out, and maybe even get tickets early. What had escaped me was Yayoi Kusama in her many mediums also practiced performance art, and I had no idea that I was standing, well actually sitting in one of her greatest performances ever, a willing participant. Now I have seen many “magic shows” which are just another version of performance art, gone to many protests, marches, concerts etc. all forms of performance art. And sat in fear of being called on to participate. But here for an 89-year-old Japanese artist I was sitting and eager to participate. Looking back, how odd.

The announcement came, KUSAMA TICKETS ON SALE TODAY! And I clicked on the link that directed me to the front page of the show, no time to read, have to get tickets. It would be scheduled and planned, times allotted and space made. When I got to the page, it would not work!!!! I tried and tried. I tried various computers, smart phones, even different locations hurrying down to the Root coffee shop, and nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then I read the page. Tickets would be sold based on level of patronage with the CMA. Big money donors getting first pick, down to our level, and on and on. Sigh, while this was similar to other forms of access it was like waking up on Christmas, just to realize your family decided to celebrate the Nordic Christmas a month away. WTF, an art term for What the Fuck! I spent the next couple days thinking, maybe it is time to up our patronage, I mean more money for art is never a bad thing. No, Deb will freak, I will just wait patiently.

That morning Deb came down for her morning coffee and asked, “Did you get our tickets?” I had to admit that I had not, that we had not given the CMA enough money, and perhaps we should consider giving them more after all, they had always given us pleasure and they certainly deserved it. She smiled and said well let’s talk about that later in the year. The wait is only weeks, they will have tickets, and perhaps while we are there we can discuss upping our patronage, stuck deep in a Kusama/CMA performance art installation.

At last the day arrived and I signed in, the ticket order form popped up saying, “You are 235th in line, please do not leave this page, or hit refresh as it will move you to the back of the line.” This is just part of the many new things I get a kick out of, digital lines are funny, but thanks to social media, which is neither social nor media, people complain to others about “standing in line to get tickets to Kusama” posted all over Facebook, Twitter, and screen dumps on Insta-Gram brought immediate smiles to my face. The moaners, groaners, narcissists, very important people who were obviously not “standing in line” were multi-tasking. Waiting for a computer to go ding, while making sure their friends, family, and others knew “they were standing in line” for some fabulous event they would share again and again, just to make sure you realize they led fabulous lives, while suffering the everyday hell of waiting too. Ahhhhhhh in retrospect…

Securing two tickets, I settled on mid-July because of scheduling both theirs and ours. Which would be two months into the show. While I was feeling crushed as if it would wear out, or the three-year-old show would get old, Deb was fine with that. “Babe, it will be hot!” “That’s OK CMA has air conditioning.” “It could be raining!” “Well I am sure the show is inside.” I could get no empathy from my wife, this was surely the end of the world, the edge of Oblivion, what could be worse? Well at least we had secured out tickets, and that could be a high point in Mid July. So nearly a year from the planting of the seed, I would get fulfillment, satisfaction and fed. In reflection I had no idea…

Finally the show was about to begin, the trickle also began. First news and photos from the CMA, then Brittany Hudak wrote a piece for “CAN Journal.” The Collective Arts Network is a must read for artists and fans of art in Northern Ohio. Published and edited by friends Michael Gill and Brittany Hudak, CAN is something I look forward to each and every issue, but I have to be honest, as good as Brittany’s article was, it was painful to read. She had gone, she had seen, she had taken part, and I was months away. Then Michael posted images, then others, and it started to roll over social media like a slow moving tsunami. “Infinity Mirrors” was here and it was a happening. Each day, each week every month thousands of images and selfies taken in the mysterious infinity boxes, that gave each and every viewer a glimpse of infinity, the world of hallucinogenics, happenings, performance art and more. Little did I realize how brief, but I would find out soon enough.
Throughout these months Deb would ask when our tickets were for, “This week?” I would say, “No, but if we had given CMA more money…” and she would reply with a smile, July 18th would come, we have a lot to do. And then add, “The end of the year will be here soon enough and we will look at donations, sponsorships and patronage then.” My God! My Soul! Doesn’t she realize it seems like it is all a million miles away!
As the day approached we looked at various pieces including: “How to enjoy infinity mirrors” which spoke about what clothes to wear, colors and how to take photos. Later, after our first visit, it would take a wonderfully dressed transvestite to show us the best way to see the show. Go, just go and soak it all in. Wearing an outfit out of the 60's, he had fun at every stop. Never bothered by what to wear, what to do, how to take pictures of what, just going, soaking it all in and having a fabulous experience. As with most art, the best photos and videos happened long before it got to Cleveland, and CMA and every museum have catalogs you can buy, images you can share, allowing you to just go and take part. Another mistake most make including myself, I was going to look at art and an installation, when in fact I was going and becoming a part of the performance, on every level. In retrospect…
July 18!!!!!! Deb and I got going early as we wanted to have the perfect “art date,” hit Tommy’s for lunch, head over to the CMA for our 1:30 pm appointment--but the pets were moving slow, and work popped up its ugly head and before you know it it was too late for lunch and it would be best to head over to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Besides, like kids at Christmas we were anxious to go and see. We had heard that there were other pieces of hers on display, and the first room was in the atrium. Also if you cannot find ways to waste time at CMA, you are a lost soul. Gift shops, rooms aplenty, restaurant, parks outside to walk in, for people looking to waste time there is no better place than the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Getting off of the Shoreway onto Martin Luther King Boulevard brought back an amazing amount of memories, many from the 60's and 70's when it was 2-lanes, and my friends and I would race each other side by side in BMWs, Alfa Romeos, Porches, Lotuses and such. Where a light drizzle would bring the oils up and put rainbows on the road that were both beautiful and deadly when hit at high speed. In those days people feared the neighborhood, decades later I would learn the neighborhood feared the crazy drivers. At the end of the day we all feared too much, hurried too much and should have spent more time working together. Today it is a peaceful park filled with international gardens that have some amazing pieces of art, but no real way to stop and enjoy them. They also turned it from two lanes in each direction to one lane, at 25 mph and it is heavily patrolled, so the races and racers are gone. But the memories are still there and always fresh.
Coming into the parking lot at the back of the Cleveland Museum of Art, you see a single Kusama Banner, while in front of the museum all of the trees are covered in red and white dots, a signature of Kusama over the years. I would recommend to all, walking through the park to the front door, it can only add to what is to follow. Parking the car the excitement builds as others are parking and talking. All have seen what they are about to see, but none have experienced what they are about to experience, and to be honest neither had I, and it would take me days to understand what was about to happen.
Parking, acquiring tickets, checking coats, getting parking validated all happens in a neutral grey striped room that mirrors the outside of the building but is delightfully understated and really sets the tone for anything that follows. Cleanse the palate and get ready. You immediately walk into the atrium which is one of the great spaces in Cleveland. On one side is the Museum, a grand building built in the early 1900's by some of the big money that was in town. Patrons like Rockefeller, Smith, Case, and on and on, millionaires and billionaires in an era when that meant something. Building a lasting legacy with the direction of BonFoey to share great art with the world, while preserving their legacy. And the more modern side with offices, gift shop and rotating gallery. At the far end one could see large pink balls hanging, OMG! KUSAMA and we are here! Not so fast.
As we walk across the immense courtyard we see a line of small mirrored boxes and chrome balls lying everywhere including piled up in the ivy. I ask one of the many volunteers who have become the heartbeat of CMA, and with a pleasant voice she says, “Oh, please go over to the 1:30pm section and you will be called.” So as I walk over to the cattle gates set up for crowd control I see one labeled 12:30, another one labeled 1:00 and finally come to the one labeled 1:30 and proceed to fall into the line that is forming. As I stand in line I can see the 12pm group slowly moving towards the mirrored box, and one or two people at a time crouching down going in and coming out seconds later. Some with smiles, some with puzzled looks, others looking at their phones and being led to the escalator that heads below to the area for new and special installations.
Slowly the cattle control area fills up with people, as we watch the other control areas empty like waterfalls one into another. You can feel the excitement build as we all look out into the atrium and the next group being formed into the control area we just left. Red dots are in the one hour away area with information about Yayoi: “Born in 1929”; “Do not move forward or backward in the show”; “Do not touch the art”; "She dedicated herself to Oblivion in the early 60's” and other tidbits every 20 feet or so. Much like Burma Shave signs of the 40's and 50's, each sign bringing you closer to the first room/box, and closer to the punchline, “Use Burma Shave” or in this case “Enjoy Oblivion.” As quick as 30 minutes goes while standing in line waiting for 30 minutes to tick by, it is your time to once again move to the next waiting area.
This one finally next to the one that is next to the mirrored box, while overlooking the first piece you can actually enjoy from Kusama, “The Narcissus Garden.” A hundred or so chrome balls about 14” across polished to a mirror-like finish, so that as you look at them you see back a hundred or more reflections of yourself. As you look deep into the balls piled high, among ivy and even escaping out on to the surrounding floors you start to see the inevitable, the hundreds of art viewers pulling out their ever present iPhones, androids, and an occasional camera and taking selfies of themselves and each other in front of the “The Narcissus Garden” which inevitably shows up in every device-- hundreds of people taking pictures of themselves even as they desperately try not to take pictures of themselves. All for them to share with others, more photos of themselves in an age when the only thing left in social circles is to show selfies, and conversations about them. You can almost read the captions, “Me at the Kusama Show.” As it would be painful to admit, “Me explaining to you, ME infant of the Narcissus Garden taken by me, to show you me!” Mind officially blown, damn for an 89-year-old woman who lived through WWII, 2 atomic blasts, the 40's, the 50's, the 60's, the 70's, the ME years of the 80's and 90's it is pretty in your face from the first moment she actually touches your life. DAMN!
Everyone getting their cameras ready…
For nearly 45 minutes you get to watch the CMA volunteer explain to the art goer, “Please do not touch anything in the box. It will be dark, you can go in one at a time or in groups up to four. You will be in the dark when the show starts, please be careful.” As you get up to the door you see another volunteer loading people into and out of the small box/room covered in mirrors. You have to crouch down as the box is barely 5 feet tall. They would protect the person's head going in and coming out as a policeman would protect the head of a perp being loaded in and out of the back seat of a police car. You also notice for the first time, a second person standing next to the door with a stopwatch. As each person enters, the watch is started in an overt effort. It is done in a way that reminded me of the way a magician’s assistant acts on the stage during a trick. During a magic trick this is done to either misdirect or to underline just how legit and honest the trick is. Why it is being done here, I think for possibly the same reasons. You now clearly hear for the first time, after nearly a year of waiting, "You can enjoy infinity for 30 seconds!" Again, how in your face, what a performance is being rolled out, infinity for less than minute. The mere thought sends the mind spinning, but before your head blows up it is your turn IN THE BOX.
You are ceremoniously loaded into the first box as you see the clock start to tick, you duck and climb into the first box, not knowing what to expect. The door shuts and the amazing show starts to start. As your eyes adjust the lights appear, various colors and sizes go on forever in every direction. You get a chance to see and absorb infinity and just as you get ready to truly be at one with the art, the door is opened, the light spills in and the volunteer is saying, “Please be careful stepping out of the room." Their hand covers the edge of the box, you step out into the light which is bright enough to shock you slightly and you are led stumbling to the escalators going down under the floor to the rest of the show. As you get to the bottom of the escalator talking with those around you about what you just experienced the conversations are from Amazing! to That was strange. Yes, that sums it all up so perfectly reminding me of many performance art shows from the 60's and 70's: that was amazing, yes it was weird, and it left you wanting, no needing more, more more more. Luckily there were 6 more rooms to go through.
Getting to the bottom, you are reminded by another volunteer that the show is to the left and the bathrooms are to the right. The gift shop is around the corner, so we head to the left and are immediately greeted by another line. A long line that leads to infinity, well the next infinity room. This one larger, but with the same cattle control rails snaking back and forth that seem to make infinity seem actually closer than it really is. An illusion, and all along the way are more red dots telling us all about Yayoi and how she was an artist, no a young child, no affected by dots, no in love with nature, no moved to… and then suddenly you are near the next box. Well close enough to read what you are about to see. And then it hits me, the queen of Oblivion is lowering another million pound anvil on each one of us. This room represents the lost children of Japan… The many dead… The funeral fires of… She is bringing her fascination with the end, Oblivion, into each and every one of our heads time and time again until it becomes a part of each and every one one of us. Well, those of us foolish enough to read the cards and play the game. It is so pounded into you over the 30-40 minutes between each room that you cannot help but think of the end of everything while looking out into infinity. Two ideas that oppose each other brought together now and again, like an extremely slow heart beat that pumps in and out every 30 seconds with 40 minutes in between. An amazing effect to pull off, and an amazing way to get into everyone’s head. An amazing stage and performance act. It is like nothing I have ever experienced.
We step up to the next box, a small sign before we walk in warns us not to touch anything, not to walk forward or backward, not to take in purses or bags. Also a sign that says, “You can spend up to 20 seconds in this room.” Phalli’s field is the brightest of all of the rooms. This one is not dedicated to death, end of time, Oblivion, or even the suicide topics of the other rooms. The installations in this one are uplifting and the highly cheerful part of this description is, “She exhibited the works together in an attempt to create hallucinatory scenes of phallic surfaces but found the labor involved in making them physically and mentally taxing. In response to the labor intensity of this work, she started to utilize mirrors to achieve similar repetition.” Damn, even when doing art involving sex and having fun she brings in the physically and mentally taxing part! You walk in and truly in seconds you are dragged out and off to the next line to Oblivion, Lost Souls, Suicide Addicts--whatever cheerful subject Yayoi brings to your palate to read and ponder for 30 or more minutes before enjoying your 30 seconds or less to actually see and understand it. Infinity x Infinity squared by infinity in an 8’ x 8’ x 8’ box. A true magic trick that I am starting to see only Yayoi can put together for millions to be part of.
As you drift through the show, and take the chance to walk out of line to enjoy some of the other Kusama art in the room you hear volunteers say, “We would prefer if you stayed in line.” Again another cultural in your face juxtaposition that assaults your senses that are already being beat to death within the 20-30 second experiences of infinity. What you see if you do choose to walk around is that Kusama is an incredibly talented artist who has been creating mind-bending, enjoyable art for over half a century. That while I had no knowledge of her she was there at every important art transition of the past 50 years, having an impact on the art world every inch of the way. While unknown to me and many she had carved out a niche every bit as important as Dali, Rockwell, Willard, Rosenquist, Pollack, and others. She was truly a star that dabbled in Oblivion.
You move through the other aspects of the show, “Love Forever,” “Love Transformed into Dots,” and the always uplifting “Manhattan Suicide Addict” also the name of one of her many books. And you start to come to grips with what you are doing and seeing. The last room is true performance art punctuation to what has been a year-long performance on an amazing scale. “Dots Obsession” is an L-shaped white room filled with the kind of objects we all live with everyday, painted white. As you enter the room, a volunteer gives you a sheet with 6 colorful dots on it. As she hands it to you she says, “You may place these anywhere you want. You will be asked for your empty sheet before you are allowed to exit. All dots must be applied in the room. You can take no dots with you.” And you walk in and you see the dots of the thousands who came before you. As you ponder where to leave your mark on this performance piece you watch others with theirs. It is an amazing show to watch, some people hide them under tables, inside of refrigerators, on top of other dots perfectly so they disappear, forming patterns and trails, the occasional person trying to place their dot where no one else can reach. And you stand there you watch Kusama’s Dot Obsession become everyone’s Dot Obsession, and the room slowly fills with dots, and I just had to smile. A year of build-up was culminating in all of us being one with her; not only did she show us infinity in tiny heavily controlled and measurable bits, she was able to transfer so much of her pain and Obsession with Oblivion and dots into each of us, while mocking each and every one of us. She got us here, slowed us down, then made us look at the world through her eyes. We spent 4+ hours looking at infinity for less that a total of 4 minutes. An amazing trick.
Then all too quickly it was over, the 4 hours went by in a flash. The performance was over, and we were exiting through the gift shop. An age-old custom with all great art shows, one last chance to buy Kusama. Share Kusama with ourselves and others, to invest in the artist who has played us and with us all afternoon. As I took the elevator up to the atrium, and away from the show forever I looked to the left and saw the 5:00pm show and 5:30pm and 6:00pm show forming up. Lines of people getting their phones and cameras out to take photos of themselves in front of the Narcissus Garden and getting ready to record their 4 minute perfectly timed journey into infinity, and 4 hour trip into the mind and art of Kusama. I had to smile, even laugh as I walked in knowing little and I walked out seeing and enjoying a modern living artist printing money. Making money for herself and for each museum she was installed at, possibly millions at this circus, as the magic moved from city to city, country to country, stage to stage. I positively love and am drawn to artists who can make a living, even become rich in their lifetimes, and this was a staggering display of that on a massive scale. How fitting as I walked across the atrium with Deb I noticed an Oldenberg in front of the old building, “Baseball Glove,” an 8’ tall bronze and wood sculpture, one of my favorites. Another modern artist who has made a good living, creating his own style and rubbing his art squarely in the face of patrons and art lovers alike. There might be no better story of modern art, patrons and artists getting over than Cleveland’s “FREE STAMP” by Oldenberg. But that story is for another day.
Driving home discussing what we had just been part of, the immediate response was not favorable. I felt like I had been dragged through a Sears fitting room in the 60's. For those not aware, Sears had fitting rooms for people buying their clothes with mirrors set up every 45 degrees, and when you shut the door it was its own “infinity room.” Others have compared it to a funhouse, which is not fair, as a house of mirrors does not have the same impact as a young boy into psychedelics in a Sears fitting room with Mom outside. The entire experience bothered me and my wife. Deb, eager to make sense of it, looked Kusama up online, and she read to me, “Kusama lives in a mental institution back in Japan. But that is by her choice.” Wow! BAM! Drop the mike, walk off the stage. Over the next three days as I thought back and wrote this story I have to tell you the experience has changed in my book. The entire ordeal/performance has risen and having witnessed a modern artist printing money and getting over made me smile. I love Yayoi Kusama but only for 20 seconds at a time ;)
About the author…
A little art history on the writer. I have a background in photography, which at times I consider an art form but generally feel it is that of a recorder, though I dabble in art. I grew up in the Pop Art era with a great appreciation for the living artists of the 50's, 60's, and 70's. Rosenquist, Lichtensteib, Pollack, Johns, Oldenberg, Warhol and others. People who took everyday images and made them “art.” Working as a graphic designer I loved the fact that people took what had always been considered commercial and industrial design and turned it into “art” that people would put on the wall. A question I always ask at “Art discussions" I desperately try to stay out of, “Who made more money, Leonardo Da Vinci with the Mona Lisa, the designer of the Campbell soup label or Warhol with his silk screen of the Campbell Soup label?" Because at the end of the day, being able to live and pay bills is something all artists want to do. The answer in order of wealth: “Warhol, the designer of the actual can, and Leonardo Da Vinci." What does it matter in art, ahhhhhhhhh, it shouldn’t and it does not define good art and bad art, but in the end it matters to the artist, and we do not want them begging on the streets. Along the way I developed a great appreciation for the finer arts, especially those that broke molds and started of in new directions against the norms of the day.

Jim O'Bryan

Publisher, Lakewood Observer, Inc.

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Volume 14, Issue 20, Posted 4:17 PM, 10.03.2018