A happening is a performance, event, or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. The term was first used by Allan Kaprow during the 1950’s to describe a range of art-related event or multiple events.( Wikipedia)
Not having booked for the Kusama event in the city, I joined the long lines that snaked around the corner of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto. Finally on my third try, I managed a ticket: interested in discovering the hype that was drawing thousands in persisting for hours in a line for daily rush tickets. I had read about Kusama, most articles focusing on her pumpkins, depression and withdrawal from society. So originally I did not have a sense of what Kusama’s art was about.
Whether the not usual attendees, particularly young folk, were just interested in joining lines or actually had a sense of Kusama ‘s installations, I do not know but about 70% of my fellow participants looked to be between 20-40, young, hip, a number with baby strollers, intent on garnering same day entrance.
Kusama’s six rooms are a mix of Alice in Wonderland and the Happenings of the 60’s, where one, (at least a Baby Boomer!), almost expects Alan Ginsberg to be reciting poetry outside the doors or a sardonic sage Andy Warhol stuck in a clutter of bell- bottomed followers lolling outside the space that becomes your own for 20-30 seconds. For the set up of Kusama’s show, for this “ happening” , the viewer follows a path and patiently waits for their own personal entry into each of the six rooms.
Beginning with the weakest room, Kosama declares that she had used her fear of sex to create an environment of soft red and white stuffed phalluses. This room is entitled Phalli’s Room and it is like standing in a garden of drooping, sad little red and white cacti, rendered harmless by their cuddly shape and decorated dotted surfaces. Yawn. Interestingly, these misshapen penises lose their identification as sexual warriors ready to attack. In stead they might decorate a mirror in a teenager’s room or be thrown by toddlers at one another amidst their other stuffed toys. Kusama appears to have overcome her fear through subjugating and transforming the texture and shape of the phalluses, rendering them impotent. I recall the work of the Surrealists such as Magritte, de Chirico, Dali who also played this game, trivializing nightmares, fantasies and neuroses through shape, size and context in their art.
The next rooms combine light and mirrors to provide that sense of infinity with which Kosama is associated. In “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” , her arrangements of refracted lights change from green to pink to red and you might just be caught in a kaleidoscope of fascinating glittering shapes. The end of eternity for me was fantastic, generating awe. As if on a ledge overlooking the scene ( my husband said one took on the persona of an alien from outer space), you are privy to all the fantastic shimmering lights of the world, dazzling, radiant, a subdued and changing colour spectrum . It reminded me of continual fireworks that rather than bursting above, continue to gleam from beneath your feet, engulfing and surrounding you as if you DO stand at the very edge of the world.
In stead of the lights I associate with the cast of a city emerging atop a river or lake generating an implosion or inner explosion , the scene feels calm, magical, wondrous and overpowering as Alice might have as she shape shifted. If this is the end of the world and eternity, it is a last mesmerizing grasp of beauty, somehow satisfying and ironically reassuring because of glittering golds and navy blues intermingled with the soft tingle of a radiant colour pallet, regally reminiscent of the Hiroshima Memorials to the victims of war. With dangling rectangular lights emerging from the backdrop of smaller illuminating gold and orange lights, momentarily the box within which you stand for your 20 seconds goes dark : no doubt to signal the absolute end, yet you’ve seen the demise of eternity in its magnificent glory of refracted light and steadfastly believe it will return- which it does. Or perhaps you are sated and ready to end your life with this final burst of beauty. So ironically again, you do not accept the darkness as the absolute end, only a pause in the beauty that has warmed and engulfed you.
In the following box ,” Love Forever,” you become a voyeur and through a window observe more of those fascinating lights now arranged in colourful hexagons, approximating the dizzying effect of love. From a darker beaming floor, a performer might commandeer your attention in Las Vegas to the streaming visual shower of neon sparkles on the ceiling as you can fix your gaze at your sweetheart through the two windows at either side of the box, peering as a voyeur might at your heart’s desire. In truth, it faithfully approximates that flash of magic one experiences when they catch sudden sight of their beloved. Hot pinks, lush reds , happy greens flood over the lights that continually change until all the colours converge and dazzle, creating both a confusion of depth, space and flatness, an illuminated walkway towards your beloved glimpsed and observable in the peeking windows. Being with my hubby of almost 45 years , this was my favourite. He is enclosed in the window for my eyes only, and I his in “Love Forever” in the midst of gorgeous lights that radiate into our own eternity.
Similarly,” The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” is as well a panorama of a non ending sea of lights, most concentrated at a horizontally plane, some greens and blue, a city scale at midnight when every street light, shop light, house light is turned on, dancing against the velvety black of a night sky, but many small bright iridescent accents also shout out too in a created sky. This recalled for me the Yad Vashem Children’s Garden in Israel of the rising and descending spiral of individual candles/ lights against the darkness, both a cry out to an enduring presence but terrible disappearance of tiny flickering souls.
You have followed Kosama’s little path into this incredible place of beauty where the opposition of loss and presence combine, signalling the yin and yang of life: forever and nowhere; destruction and beauty; light and absence. And with these juxtapositions, you enter your own interaction with the mysterious, incomprehensible ebb and flow of what it means to be human- and the loss of that.
To ensure no iPhone pictures, an attendant accompanies you into “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”, the final box. And as the pink phalluses, this is a static composition full of interesting immobile shapes transforming a memory of homegrown gourds into a tactile form. So as we began our journey with soft art creations reminiscent of Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine( think of the former’s huge hamburger) and her artist friends in the 60’s so we come full circle back from our lightfilled experiences.
We return to Alice’s world in a place of polka dotted stickers, chairs and tables covered with those dots applied by the participants. It is an exhibit of the visitors- making as are the best kind of artscapes wherein it is is personalized and made meaningful by the viewers’ own minds and bodies: the artist providing you the props, the means to internalize and come to grips with the elements proffered, participants organizing and making meaning through memory or suggestion -as most will by recalling an explosion of fireworks, a sudden burst or closing off of light.
The gallery has given you a set path through which you follow and enter into the rooms, but no one controls your response to what you see or feel. The arrangement of horizontals, mirrors, rectangles guides your reaction because we are programmed to think of clustered horizontal arrangements as sky or lake, the directionality of these surfaces imprinted by your own experiences of sky, land’s end, etc. or chaos wherein there is no pattern, organization or structure whatsoever . But Kusama’s intimations are merely beacons we need not accept in our personal realms, yet we do gravitate to the signposts in our experience as guiding our perceptions. That she approximates love as a kaleidoscope of colours to suggest emotions may be a common feature of love, that we cogitate that the end of eternity may be a cessation of all lights crashing from the ablaze of lights stimulates rational overlays from books, stories, our own acceptance of what we have experienced empirically. So she plays with our senses as notions of reality, subverting as she has done the phallic symbol from fear to friendly.
Although Kusama created many of these boxes in the 60’s, they are brilliantly refreshed, rendered new by the iPhone. Every person I noted entering was taking a selfie to extend and remember and record the experience, much as the infinite mirrors expanded the images bouncing from the originals. The viewer could now take the scene away, making it their own on their own mirror/ camera, they as the true subject of the exhibit, the happening, the light creations as backdrop to themselves.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times and obsession with selfies, that the younger audiences do not really come to see the art. Note how many of Van Gogh’s irises are mere decoration for a ridiculously grinning self portrait. These “new” happenings are self centred, the gaze turned inward, not out towards the works or even the world: light the most appropriate means to be used to satisfy this passion of the instantaneous, certainly a present day symbol. In the twist of this art as once a communal happening to a contemporary inner personal moment for self-aggrandizement, Kusama affords a dying yet endless vision, an evanescent one such as that caught momentarily on the iPad, that lasts a second, capturing the viewers’ fascination of themselves at a particular event, eyes turned towards superficial self, not a piercing glaze of insight.
At least Alice went down the hole in search of the white rabbit, meeting and confronting the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, but here the spectator is both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, searching not for another, but their own elusive Cheshire Cat smile. Yet pursuing the white rabbit does suggest a chase of the impossible or a dream, the white rabbit so curious, so strange that Alice cannot help following. Yet too, our sense of this exhibition is a happening that exists on multiple levels, the physical and the spiritual, enduring and singular; Kosama achieves this brilliantly.
The wait in long lumbering lines well worth the journey, a mocking Timothy Leary winking behind a light in eternity.