Infinito Presente: the Italian show-event celebrating Yayoi Kusama’s poetics 

From the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum in New York, the infinity room Fireflies on the Water (2002) arrives in Italy for the first time on the occasion of the Contemporary Art Festival ARTDATE.

The exhibition Yayoi Kusama. Infinito Presente – inaugurated on 17th November and open to visitors until 24th March 2024 at the Palazzo della Regione in Bergamo – represents an impressive unicum within the Italian cultural panorama. For the first time, the Italian public will be able to experience the thrill of entering one of Yayoi Kusama’s popular infinity rooms right here in their homeland. And we are not talking about just any installation:  The Blank Contemporary Art in collaboration with the Municipality of Bergamo has in fact brought Fireflies on the Water (2002) to Italy, one of Kusama’s most iconic mirrored environments belonging to the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum in New York.

The exhibition itinerary intends to delve into Kusama’s poetics and artistic practice through poems, documents, and films, creating a moment of active participation within the installation. Her infinity rooms are in fact designed to be experienced first-hand by the public without any external filters. The visitors, with their own emotions and perceptions, become the protagonists of the work by activating the installation and the multiple meanings it contains. Fireflies on the Water is a room-sized installation immersed in darkness, the only source of light are 150 tiny lights hanging from the ceiling which reflect infinitely on the mirrored walls and on the pool of water located in the center of the room. A sort of pond, in which a viewing platform like a pier protrudes, conveying a sense of tranquility and quiet. The feeling is that of being on the shore of a lake in the middle of the night surrounded by thousands of fireflies – hence the name of the installation -, but also in an otherworldly dimension, in an infinite space with no top or bottom, beginning or end.

Yayoi Kusama, Fireflies on the Water, 2002, © Yayoi Kusama. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins

The installation was designed to be experienced in solitude, one person at a time, to accentuate the meditative character of the work, but a collective experience does not diminish its magic. The human figure, central to the activation of the work, is however nothing more than a silhouette in the darkness of the room. People’s faces are occasionally illuminated by the tiny light sources that reveal expressions of amazement, wonder, but also serenity and pure enjoyment. Throughout her career, Kusama has created more than twenty infinity rooms, such as Infinity Mirror Room: Phalli’s Field (1965) – her first mirrored-room in which she arranged hundreds of soft, phallic forms in order to trigger a psycho-sexual relationship with one’s own body and image -, or Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) and Gleaming Lights of the Souls (2008), which propose the same play of lights and reflections of Fireflies on the Water.

Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room from 1965 is a large-scale transposition of some of the most recurring motifs of her artistic practice: polka dots and sexual references. Using mirrors, she has transformed the intense repetition of her earlier paintings and works on paper into a perceptual experience. The references to nudity, sexuality and the human body derive from her fear-obsession for sex dating back to her childhood, as her mother would often send her to spy on her father’s extramarital affairs. For instance, the work Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963) – the first spatial installation she created after moving to New York in 1958 – consisted of a real rowing boat on whose surface, like corals on a wreck at the bottom of the sea, phallic-shaped protuberances stood out. Kusama’s childhood was also marked by difficult periods in which she suffered from hallucinations which she has described as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots”. Like many artists before her, Kusama took refuge in the healing power of art, giving substance and materiality to her hallucinatory visions: subjects and themes that would become crucial in her stylistic signature over the years.

At the age of 94, Kusama is not only one of the most beloved artists, but also one of the most appreciated and sought after, on the international art market. The prestigious publication The Art Newspaper referred to her as the most popular artist in the world, and it is not at all difficult to imagine why. Kusama is in fact the most successful living female artist in the world in terms of annual auction turnover: 162 million dollars in 2021. In 2022, the ranking drawn up every year by Artprice placed her twelfth among the best-selling artists at auction thanks to a total turnover of 889 million dollars and 7.884 lots sold in the last thirty years.

Artists Yayoi Kusama and Lucio Fontana during the performance Narcissus Garden at Giardini della Biennale. © Gianni Berengo Gardin/Courtesy Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia

Since 1977, the Japanese record-breaking artist has lived by choice in the psychiatric clinic in Seiwa, Japan, and has continued to create art in her studio in Shinjuku. In recent years she has been the protagonist of two huge collaborations with the French maison Louis Vuitton – in 2012 and at the beginning of 2023 – which have garnered a great response from people all over the world, as well as some criticism due to the commercial drift her art has taken lately, according to certain art purists. Controversy aside, Kusama remains one of the most original and relevant voices on the world’s artistic scene, a promoter of an art without filters and barriers, and with that touch of feminism that – then, as now, – never hurt anyone.

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Agnese Torres
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