When I was a kid and my parents were out of the house, I would sometimes slip into their bathroom. I would do this not to snoop around in the drawers or to try to ascertain the secrets of the lives of adults, but rather to find a piece of infinity.
An explanation of the topography of the bathroom, in particular of the bathroom sink, and especially of the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink, should elucidate the situation. You see, the medicine cabinet has three partitions, each with a mirrored door, the outer two of which both swing open towards the center. Therefore, if, say, a ten-year-old boy were to open these two doors just the right amount and stick his head between them in just the right place, with his eyes pointing in just the right direction, all of these details of course meticulously fine-tuned during multiple sessions, he would seemingly find himself placed right in the middle of an infinite greenish-silver corridor, alternating images of the front and back of his head lined up as far as he could see. It was intoxicating to find such an expansive space in a room that, at first glance, appears so limited in dimensions.
(This desire to find infinity in unexpectedly small places is perhaps in part responsible for my later infatuation with the short fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose techniques, as Lois Parkinson Zamora aptly states in an essay on Borges and trompe l’œil, create “the illusion of infinity in a tightly contained narrative space.”)
In the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of Pittsburgh, located in a former mattress warehouse, there is a remarkable contemporary art museum called, appropriately, Mattress Factory. Among the highlights of the museum are three light installations by James Turrell and two mirrored rooms by Yayoi Kusama, where, as a graduate student, I found more fully realized versions of the infinite corridor in my parents’ bathroom.
The first, Infinity Dots Mirrored Room, is an empty room with a polka-dotted floor and mirrored walls and ceiling, illuminated by black light. The effect is eerie; one feels entirely alone and lost in a formless landscape which grows increasingly indistinct as it recedes to the horizon.
The second, Repetitive Vision, is slightly less disorienting and slightly more surreal. The polka dots are all bright red, the light is white rather than black, and the viewer is joined by mannequins, covered in red polka dots themselves.
During the 1960s, Kusama, who was born and raised in Japan, was a prominent figure in the New York art scene, working alongside Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol and romantically involved with Joseph Cornell. She worked obsessively, creating huge installations and staging bizarre happenings in public places, including many in which, anticipating Repetitive Vision, Kusama would paint polka dots on the bodies of nude models.
Her time in New York, though, was also characterized by severe health problems, and she was hospitalized on many occasions. In 1973, at the advice of a doctor, Kusama moved back to Japan, and since 1975 she has resided at the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she continues to create art. She suffers from depersonalization disorder, in which an individual has recurring feelings of disconnection from their body or thoughts. They may feel as if they are watching their life in a movie. They may have hallucinations. According to Kusama, her artwork is largely an expression of her experiences with mental disease; this seems particularly the case with her mirrored rooms.
Depersonalization disorder is typically thought to be caused by severe traumatic events. In a 1999 interview in Bomb Magazine, which due to Kusama’s residence at a mental hospital was conducted via fax, she describes being abused by her mother as a child:
My mother was a shrewd businesswoman, always horrendously busy at her work. I believe she contributed a great deal to the success of the family business. But she was extremely violent. She hated to see me painting, so she destroyed the canvases I was working on. I have been painting pictures since I was about ten years old when I first started seeing hallucinations.
In her artist’s statement accompanying Repetitive Vision, created and installed in the Mattress Factory in 1996, Kusama describes a hallucination that inspired the work:
One day, I was looking at a tablecloth covered in red flowers, which was spread out on the table. Then I looked up towards the ceiling. There, on the windows and even on the pillars, I would see the same red flowers. They were all over the place in the room, my body, and entire universe. I finally came to a self-obliteration and returned to be restored to the infinity of eternal time and the absoluteness of space. I was not having a vision. It was a true reality. I was astounded. Unless I got out of here, the curse of those flowers will seize my life! I ran frantically up the stairs. As I looked down, the sight of each step falling apart made me stumble. I fell all the way down the stairs and sprained my leg.
There is in the popular imagination a strong link between infinity and madness, in particular a causal link posited from the first to the second, a persistent image of a person staring into the void and never again being quite the same. For example, it is commonly asserted that Georg Cantor went insane from thinking about infinity too much. And while it is true that he spent the end of his life in sanatoria, this likely had little to do with his contemplations of infinity. Rather, experts believe that he suffered from bipolar disorder, which was possibly exacerbated by strong criticism of his work from other mathematicians.
In actuality, I suspect (and I write here with no real authority on the matter) that some amount of immersive experience with infinity is beneficial, that it can help us gain a healthy perspective on our relationship with the world. Much of Kusama’s work, and, I think, much other contemporary art as well, seeks to engender this experience. Standing in one of her mirrored rooms, you temporarily lose yourself in its vastness. You become more aware of the true scale of the world and your size within it. And in my experience this turns out, when taken in small doses, to be a surprisingly comforting sensation.
Kusama herself, in the Bomb interview, puts things a bit more forcefully:
By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.