Selfies and Self-Obliteration: Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Gleaming Lights of the Souls’

A visit to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark would not be complete without experiencing Yayoi Kusama’s installation piece, 'Gleaming Lights of the Souls'. Dating from 2008, 'Gleaming Lights' is one of only a few permanently-installed Kusama infinity rooms. It consists of a hundred miniature lamps, mirrored walls and a water floor which enhances reflective illusions. What the above image fails to capture is the constant colour changes of the tiny polka dot lamps, which shift from red, to green to blue and back again with a gentle, rhythmic regularity.

Kusama’s fascination with polka dots began in her childhood when she started experiencing hallucinations; visions that she described as “dense fields of dots”. In an interview, she said that her interest in dots comes from their significance as symbols of the world and of the cosmos. Her infinity rooms, along with much of her sculpture and installations, utilise the motif of the polka dot to the extreme. She has explained that her art is a visual, concrete manifestation of her obsessive delusions. Kusama grew up in Matsumoto, Japan, and was the victim of unfortunate family circumstances. Her father’s extra-marital affairs, which her mother would send her to spy upon, left Kusama with a self-confessed fear of sex, and of men. She has struggled with mental health for most of her life and since 1975 has voluntarily lived in a hospital for the mentally ill.

One of the driving principles behind Kusama’s work has been her strive for self-obliteration. This is a concept which can be defined as something close to the Buddhist idea of ego death; an ability to let go of the self, the ego, and become one with the universe. In 'Gleaming Lights', mirrored walls extend the boundaries of what is in fact a small, enclosed room, creating the illusion of infinite space and thus reducing the significance of the individual. The advent of social media, however, has given rise to an interesting tension between the artist’s intention and public perception. The "Instagrammable" quality of the installations has proved hugely popular, spawning a profusion of infinity room selfies and feeding into a culture which is, in its most essential form, a celebration of the self. It could be argued that the current success of Kusama’s infinity rooms is a result of a culture of self-glorification, rather than self-obliteration.

Ellie Lovejoy

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