The first time I walked into one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms was an accident. I was visiting the Broad Museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles in March of 2016, about six months after it opened. I joined a line in the lobby, assuming it would bring me to the galleries. It instead led to Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, an installation the artist created in 2013.
Like most of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, the installation was a small enclosed space that viewers could enter and occupy for a short set amount of time—less than a minute—as designated by the artist. The museum guard opened the door, I stepped in, and my allotted 45 seconds in the room began. The installation’s ceilings and walls were covered in mirrors, its floor a shallow pool of water with a reflective platform that jutted through the center like a diving board. Round, multicolored LED lights hung from the ceiling and floated in the water, blinking but otherwise completely still, like city lights seen from an airplane. The space was cosmic and star-like, made more surreal when I turned to the mirror and saw my reflection surrounded by all of the glowing colors—red and green, purple and orange, yellow and blue. And me.
It’s at this point that most people would reach for their phones to compose a selfie shot. I also experienced this inclination, but before proceeding, I panicked. The narcissistic aspect of selfies makes me extremely uncomfortable. If I were truly looking, mesmerized by this work of art, how could I stop to photograph myself? But, the installation’s time limit didn’t let me linger in my indecision for long. I gave in to the impulse, like most people seem to do. I took a photo just before the guard opened the door and the light washed away the stars.
The questioning of my narcissism came back to haunt me when the exhibit Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors arrived at the Seattle Art Museum this June. This time, I had multiple opportunities to experience the discomfort: the museum has five Infinity Mirror Rooms on display, ranging from the artist’s first, Phalli’s Field (1965), to the more recent All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016). The exhibit also includes Kusama’s work in other mediums, such as early paintings she made in response to growing up in Japan during World War II, her Infinity Net paintings that anticipated the Mirror Rooms, and documentation of performances that took place the 1960s and ’70s.
An unsanctioned intervention the artist staged at the 1966 Venice Biennale titled Narcissus Garden gained a heightened relevancy as I prepared to make my selfie decisions at SAM. As Mika Yoshitake describes in the catalog for the Infinity Mirrors exhibition, at the biennale Kusama wore a gold kimono and stood outside of the event's Italian Pavilion selling 1,500 mirror balls to visitors for two dollars each; beside her, a sign read, “Your Narcissism for Sale.” Yoshitake explains the performance in the context of “self obliteration,” Kusama’s phrase “referring to the manner in which dot patterns … would replicate endlessly and thus atomize the self into minute particles.” The mirror balls of the biennale performance enabled the viewers to gaze into endless images of themselves, obliterating their own humanness—and these images became inexpensive souvenirs they could purchase and take home with them. By digitally reproducing our narcissism for visual consumption, was the selfie somehow in the same spirit as this gesture? Or did it defy “self obliteration” by glamorizing moments of narcissism, giving them a kind of permanence that the Infinity Mirror Rooms’ time limit was trying to evade?
This tension lingered in the back of my mind as I moved through SAM’s exhibit. The people who ended up standing beside me in the three-person-capacity rooms seemed similarly divided. In Phalli’s Field, a professional photographer captured dozens of photos of himself reflected among the red and white plush phallus sculptures without shame, his lens clicking in rapid-fire for most our time in the space. In Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009), two women discussed their collective refusal to take photos at any point in the rooms as the golden lanterns around us faded into darkness. I remained indecisive, photographing myself and then deleting most of the shots moments later, obliterating the evidence of my narcissism before it felt too permanent.
When I thought about posting one of my remaining photos on Instagram, Kusama’s performance at the biennale came back to mind. In her essay, Yoshitake discusses how the intervention was “a brilliant media success” because of the image newspapers captured of Kusama among the mirrored balls, over and over again. That the artist designed the intervention as a way to present a constructed image of herself and her art by seducing the media with its photogenic qualities sounded familiar. I thought of Beyoncé, creating her stylized pregnancy photos to post on her own website, rather than letting the paparazzi catch her somewhere on the street sporting a baby bump and sending the image to the tabloids. I also thought of Kourtney Kardashian and Katy Perry, who used their Instagram selfies inside the Broad Museum’s Infinity Mirror Room to convey this constructed leisure activity to their fans.
In this context, Kusama’s inclination to control and present her own image in the 1960s seems well ahead of its time. Accepting the way images are consumed, she chose to control the construction, proliferation, and obliteration of hers rather than allowing someone else to do so. Some of her true self was left out in the fiction of the performance. But, she also ensured the performance was conveyed the way she envisioned it. To this end, maybe taking selfies, in an Infinity Mirror Room or elsewhere, can have meaning when done with similar intent—when they give us the chance to perform and let go of ourselves at the same time.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is showing at SAM through September 10.