ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Infinity is a concept that's nearly impossible to imagine, let alone see. But it's one of artist Yayoi Kusama's obsessions. For the first time, six of her infinity rooms are on display in one venue - the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. Later, the show travels to Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities. NPR's Elizabeth Blair went inside the rooms and has this report.
MELISSA CHIU: It is essentially a black-mirrored room.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Pitch black, except for a spray of colored lights all around us like little jewels suspended in mid-air. You're not sure what you can touch and what's out of reach. Melissa Chu is the Hirshhorn's Director.
CHIU: With the sense of infinity that the mirrors create, you feel as if - that you're a speck in amongst something greater.
BLAIR: Yayoi Kusama has been thinking about how we are just specks in the universe for decades. In 1968, she wrote, our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos.
RICHARD CASTELLANE: She shocked the living daylights out of people.
BLAIR: Richard Castellane was Kusama's dealer in New York in the 1960s. He remembers one of the infinity rooms was full of phalluses. In another, masses of colored lights were controlled by a machine while music played.
CASTELLANE: The machine would be setting off these lights in almost like a machine-gun rhythm. And what occurred, of course, was the lights would bounce from mirror to mirror to mirror to mirror. And it was - you couldn't focus on anything. You had no sense of space because space was infinite. And the music - the one that hit me was "Help."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP")
THE BEATLES: Help. I need somebody. Help. Not just anybody. Help. You know, I need someone. Help.
BLAIR: Remember, this was the 1960s. So before video games and virtual reality were big. Castellane says Kusama's work astonished people.
CASTELLANE: They were just mesmerized and rather overwhelmed. It was something very new.
BLAIR: Brilliant and inventive is how Castellane describes Kusama's mind. But her mind also terrified her. Kusama grew up in a mountain city in central Japan during World War II. Her parents owned a seed nursery. In her autobiography, she writes that she suffered from hallucinations. Violets in a field suddenly had humanlike faces and voices.
She drew these visions in sketchbooks that she carried with her everywhere. Recording them helped ease the shock and fear of the episodes, she writes. Kusama's mother fiercely objected to her art and took away her supplies, believing a woman had no future as a painter. So in 1957, Kusama left. Melissa Chu.
CHIU: if you want to be a successful artist, you had to go to New York.
BLAIR: In the New York experimental-art scene, Kusama thrived. She organized anti-Vietnam War happenings, where she would sometimes paint polka dots on naked bodies. She was in shows throughout the U.S. and Europe. Dresses she designed were sold at Bloomingdale's. Richard Castellane says Kusama was fearless.
CASTELLANE: She was very gutsy. And also, she knew - she really felt what she was doing was important.
BLAIR: But Hirshhorn Curator Mika Yoshitake says gaining respect as an artist wasn't easy.
MIKA YOSHITAKE: It was tough to get the attention in a very male-dominated art world at the time. She also was exoticised, you know? And she didn't hide it either. She was wearing kimonos and presented this kind of exotic, oriental figure.
BLAIR: Kusama was barely making ends meet. She continued to hallucinate and have panic attacks. In the early 1970s, she moved back to Japan. For more than 40 years, she's lived - by choice - in a psychiatric institution.
She couldn't travel to Washington for the opening of her show at the Hirshhorn, but her creative life continues. She's made new infinity rooms, one full of bright, yellow polka-dotted pumpkins. In a video interview with the Hirshhorn curators, it's clear Kusama is still thinking expansively.
YAYOI KUSAMA: (Speaking Japanese).
BLAIR: Far beyond the reaches of the universe, Kusama says, infinity is trying to communicate with us. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS SONG, "NEVER CATCH ME")
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