Yayoi Kusama “Cosmic Nature”
New York Botanical Gardens, NYC
April 10th – October 31st, 2021
The New York Botanical Gardens is currently housing works from prolific contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama in the Cosmic Nature exhibition featuring a variety of her works, both new and old. The installations, which will run through October 31st, are right at home in the 250-acre landscape located in the Bronx, perfectly marrying the natural spectacle of the Gardens and the breath-taking sculptures from Kusama’s storied career. Alongside the soon-to-be-opened Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart (2020) on August 1st, this exhibit welcomes the summer to New York City.
The 92-year-old’s works often incorporate the natural world, and within the confines of the New York Botanical Gardens, a more intimate connection can be made between the Kusama’s genius and the organic environment. Located in the central fountain just through the entrance to the Gardens, attendants are greeted by the face of I Want to Fly to the Universe (2020), adorned with Kusama’s characteristic polka dots, tentacles, and luminous use of color. This 13-foot visage sets the mood for the rest of the exhibition and can be argued to be the most ‘cosmic’ piece to be found in the garden. Its alienesque presence against the green woodland backdrop welcomes the viewer to this otherwordly experience.
Kusama’s celebrated history with polka dots is on further display in a revived version of her Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002/2021). Polka dots are a staple motif in her work. The repetitive organic shapes reference the biological world by contrasting with the unnatural colors. NYBG show curator Mika Yoshitake describes Kusama’s polka dots as “cell-like features creating complex, boundless entities on the verge of explosive expanse,” and nowhere is this more apparent than Ascension, a staple of Kusama’s numerous outdoor exhibits. Trees wrapped in pink-red fabric and covered in her iconic white polka dots line a garden walkway beside her Instagram-famous Obliteration Greenhouse, Flower Obsession (2017/2021). Beyond the walkway is the legendary Narcissus Garden (1966/2021). The mirrored orbs sit atop one of the Botanical Gardens’ picturesque ponds, inviting viewers to engage in self-reflection and revisit the history of Kusama’s exhibits.
The highlight of the entire exhibit, Dancing Pumpkin (2020), sits beside the renowned Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The black and yellow sculpture towers over viewers with its elongated tentacles and semi-reflective interior which can be walked under. The piece shines distinctly against the gleaming white backdrop of the Conservatory and the bright blue of the New York City summer sky, making its unnatural colors seem even more extra-terrestrial.
The Conservatory itself requires an extra ticket that is well worth the purchase. Besides access to the Botanical Garden’s large array of breath-taking plant life, the space also houses Hymn of Life—Tulips (2007), an effervescent assortment of colorful flowers under the glass roof. Tickets also include access to the Flower Obsession (2017/2021), one of Kusama’s famous Obliteration Greenhouses. Inside the Greenhouses, visitors are allowed to contribute to the art piece itself by placing poppy stickers wherever they see fit. Perhaps the most notable addition this ticket affords is admittance to the Visitors Centre Gallery containing Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity (2017), a mirrored room containing a seemingly endless number of yellow and black spotted pumpkins reflecting into the abyss.
Kusama’s career has not always been polka dots and pumpkins, however. Her struggles with her mental health heavily influence her artistic career. Growing up in Tokyo, Kusama experienced a great deal of childhood trauma, causing her to suffer from hallucinations that inspire much of her work. After leaving Japan in 1957, she dove into the New York arts scene, surrounded by the personalities like Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell with whom she had a tumultuous personal relationship.
Finding muted success, Kusama and her associates have since brought to the public eye alleged theft of her ideas by many of her male compatriots in the art world, which has drawn both criticism and support by those concerned. After her tenure in New York, she returned to Japan after extensive poor health in 1973, eventually leading to a voluntary residence in a psychiatric institute where she lives and commutes to her nearby studio from.
Despite the hardship she has endured, Kusama enjoys an enormous degree of success. Her work is featured in multiple touring and fixed retrospectives and has sold-out exhibitions across the globe. In 2017 the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo, Japan. Much of her success can be attributed to the social media buzz around her work, spurred mainly by the “Instagrammable” quality of Infinity and Obliteration rooms. The hashtag #yayoikusama brings up almost a million results on Instagram. Both her Infinity and Obliteration rooms garner an enormous amount of engagement across the internet and in person.
Opened in April during the COVID-19 pandemic, this almost entirely open-air exhibit acts as the ideal way for those interested to enjoy both nature and art. As summer begins and New York City continues to open up and return to some semblance of normal, those lucky enough to purchase tickets will find this exhibit an exceptional way to spend the day. Those unable to make it in the immediate future will be happy to know that the exhibit runs through October 31st, with Garden and Gallery tickets available to purchase now. The Gardens are open Monday-Sunday 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; and on Saturdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Visitors should also look forward to the opening of the Infinity Mirrored Room in August, with public pre-sale tickets available on June 24th.