Yayoi Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery
There’s something deeply moving about staring at millions of interconnected dots, feeling your infinitesimal smallness in the universe. This startlingly existentialist moment came about as I gazed into Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets. “All of us,” she has said, “live in the unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the universe.” And there I was, losing myself in the subtlety of gradient and shadow and layering; the same elements that I try to articulate in my own design. It’s not groundbreaking that paintings have a similar nuanced composition, but there is something special about the medium in which Kusama expresses light and dark.
Let’s back up to the beginning of my afternoon at the Victoria Miro gallery. After waiting for (at least) an hour on the sidewalk, I was lead to the back garden where there’s a massive black box and an algae-covered pool waiting for you. The “box” is one of artist’s mirror rooms, which you are lovingly crammed inside of for thirty seconds to immerse yourself in the environment. I ducked into Where the Lights in My Heart Go and the door shut tightly behind me. Suddenly slammed with darkness, my eyes began to adjust slowly, my body recognising where it was in space. I had flashbacks about going to James Turrell’s Pleiades, at which I couldn’t manage to actually see the installation thanks to ‘faulty pupils’ (I had to justify my failure somehow). Slowly, however, I began to see pinpricks of light penetrating the darkness. I grinned like a kid at Christmas and immediately began to slide my hand across the walls, covering and uncovering the dots of light, watching the patterns dance on the mirrored interior.
Thirty seconds was up and then I was back out in the cruel, bright world. It was a chaotic feat of reflectivity, and such a contrast to what we lighting nerds try to control to the nth degree. I couldn’t help but marvel. Dots, right? Simple shape, simple concept, visceral reaction… everything you want in design, in one little box. You can start taking notes now.
All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins was calling me, begging me to shove myself in another small, mirrored room and have half a minute of blissful wonderment. Another half hour in line. I didn’t care. I would have waited two. As I shuffled forward, I glanced lovingly at an assortment of bronze pumpkins, the pieces that initially drew me to Kusama’s weird and wonderful works. The polished, gleaming forms were lit from all angles, and the metal shone alluringly, brightening the open gallery space. The temptation to run your hands along the circular impressions (dots, Kael, don’t be poetic) is almost unbearably strong. I’ll give some credit to the lighting for that.
Finally – finally – I was at the front of the line with bated breath, and nearly threw my bag on the floor before stepping inside the box. I heard the stopwatch and the door click simultaneously and I was instantly immersed in a golden-yellow field of perfect and imperfect curves. The polka dots are so clear against the loping shape of the pumpkins that the contrast between colour and void is almost palpable. Illuminated from within, the veg have a soft, diffuse, ethereal glow that makes them float above the mirrored floor tiles. Again, so simple, so elementary in its design components, and ultimately successful in conveying her passion for the beautiful, odd pumpkins.
Click-click; out I went, dazed and sublime. Ten minutes later I found myself in front of the Infinity Nets, pondering my own existence in the vastness of the world. Simplicity of form is something we’re all taught, but this artist lives and breathes reductionism in dot form. Lighting design can take some cues from this philosophy: break down a concept into its constituent parts, analyse and simplify them, then regroup into an effective, effortless scheme.
Yayoi Kusama harnesses light in an unusual and emotional way; it tugs at your heartstrings even if the reason isn’t immediately clear. That should resonate with all of us. If you’re not convinced, grab your umbrella and go wait on the sidewalk for a bit to see for yourself.