When Yayoi Kusama was 10 years old, pumpkins began to speak to her. Her anxiety disorder, which had left her at the mercy of vivid, relentless nightmares, was blossoming. Locked in a nightmarish childhood where her mother — emotionally abusive and intensely prohibitive, she banned her from drawing, stunting her impulses toward art as a child — had enlisted her to spy on her philandering father’s many trysts, the young Kusama sought solace where she could find it.
Pumpkins provided for Kusama a refuge. “Such tender things to touch, so appealing in colour and form,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I would confront the spirit of the pumpkin, forgetting everything else and concentrating my mind entirely on the form before me,” she wrote. Kusama, it hardly needs be said, had great motivation to forget as much as possible, all the time.
That might not be the story at the top of your mind standing in line to see “Love Is Calling,” Kusama’s 2013 infinity mirror room recently acquired by the ICA. But maybe it should be. (And there will be lines, though no longer than half an hour, the museum promises; it learned from “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” the traveling Kusama extravaganza of last year, where waiting hours for a mere 20 seconds in each of the six rooms was the norm. “Love Is Calling” is on view for a solid 18 months.)
As Kusama-mania blossomed in recent years, fueled by the rooms and their radically-Instagrammable potential — search the #yayoikusama hashtag and you’ll find some 836,000 images, mostly cheery selfies shot in these endlessly repeating mirror worlds — the depth of the artist’s vision and history has been largely subsumed.
A nonagenarian now confluent with social media, she’s simultaneously one of its biggest stars and most significant casualties. Blithe, distracted superficiality is what social media does best, and the sparkly realms Kusama began building in 1965 as deeply personal refuge now seem to serve mostly as backdrops to a narcissistic, look-at-me world. Kusama has lived in a Japanese institution since the 1970s due to crippling anxiety and other mental health issues. Whatever the social mediasphere may look like, a candy-colored carnival her life has not been.
I saw “Infinity Mirrors” on its tour last year, mostly to my disappointment. Depth and context — her tragic upbringing, her struggles with mental health, her stamp on art history (Kusama presaged Minimalism in the 1950s with her Infinity Net paintings, and pioneered performance and art-as-activism, too) — were tucked off to the side, clearly subordinate to the cheery funhouse main event. While the show helped make Kusama ever more famous, it also diluted her raw, emotional honesty and towering influence. It surely cemented an indelible legacy for an artist now nearing the end of her life, but for what?
In the aftermath of all that, for an institution like the ICA, an infinity mirror room is ripe with tantalizing opportunity — for brand-name draw outside the typical art-going audience, I doubt even Andy Warhol compels ticket sales quite like Kusama — and a weighty responsibility. To the latter, the ICA has risen to the occasion.
“Love Is Calling” is large — big enough to accommodate six people, and comfortably, which allows discrete experience but also a shared, reflective joy (Kusama is about nothing if not connection, finding our way through the cosmos to universal shared solace). Its snaking tendrils dangle from above and curl up from the floor, glowing in soft pastel colors and festooned with polka dots. They’re organic, soft; bodily, but kind. They disappear in every direction around you, masking the edges of the space to which you’re confined. They prompt, as Kusama had hoped, a contemplation of transcendence — an imagined glimpse of the unknowable, of what may lie beyond the confines of this earthly plane.
Which is all fine, though you’ll bring to the experience what you like. The rooms, like their maker, are open in that way; they’re an invitation, not a prescription. But still, let’s not miss the point. On the wall near the room’s exit — you’ll also see it while in line, unless you’re too busy scanning #infinitymirrors — is Kusama’s poem “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears” (while in the room for your 120 seconds — the allotment calculated to allow both contemplation and fluid queue movement — the artist herself intones it aloud, in Japanese).
In it, Kusama — isolated, anxiety-wracked, in the final stages of her enduring struggle to reconcile the trauma of her life — contemplates the end. It embodies much of Kusama’s work, and life: A yearning for connection, a hyper-awareness of death, a fervent desire for an existence beyond this harsh realm of violence and pain. “Over many long years with art as a weapon/ I have treaded the path in search of love,” she writes. “Devoting all my heart to you, I have lived through to this day/ Hoping to leave beautiful footprints at the end of my life.”
Just beyond, the ICA offers Kusama in deeper art-world context. Canny pairings — with Ana Mendieta’s bodies imprinted on buildings, alongside documentation of Kusama’s naked-and-body-painted antiwar happenings; one of Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits” another kind of armored retreat from the vicious reality of the everyday — help situate her influence, her stamina, and her indomitable world view.
But what’s the thing that sticks? Kusama has spent a lifetime crafting her own escape to a place beyond the beyond, where cruelty and pain are vaporized amid a cosmic oneness of beauty and love. Her invitation — to join her, to see beyond ourselves (selfie-seekers, take note) to a higher plane — is her enduring gift to us all. By all means, take a picture. Show your friends. But allow yourself a moment to contemplate something larger than what the screen in your hand can contain.
YAYOI KUSAMA: LOVE IS CALLING and BEYOND INFINITY
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Feb. 21, 2021. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte