For one minute, you stand utterly alone. The patches of complete darkness—the spaces untouched by the circumferential reach of lights strung in ribboned strands—create an unobtrusive yet dominating backdrop that envelopes your senses. This silent darkness, sliced through by the dotted lights and made infinite by mirrored walls creates an alternate space that is at once timeless and dimensionless. A juxtaposition between chaos and order, dark and light, matte and refracted permits you to feel simultaneously isolated yet curious, jarred yet peaceful, alone yet alive—all within the boundless confines of an infinite room, with you at its center.

Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition, Fireflies on the Water, is designed to be experienced alone. While other exhibitions that are premised upon shared space and time lost their footing amidst the devastation of COVID-19—Broadway shutting down, interactive art installations closing and concerts rescheduling—Kusama’s exploration of solitude and isolation finds new significance in the context of a socially-distanced ‘new normal’ nearly two decades after its debut; though perhaps not the world in which Kusama expected it to be viewed, today’s crisis seems to make experiencing art alone all the more appropriate. The art installation, which temporarily closed alongside the Toledo Museum of Art due to the pandemic but opened again in July, at once accepts and transcends isolation, positing it as boundless rather than confining, vast rather than stifling. 

The exhibition both physically and conceptually positions the viewer within an infinite time and space, almost flattening the individual against the endless universe. The conceptual design behind the installation—an immersive distillation of a drop of complete solitude in the midst of a hustle-and-bustle world—means the art can be viewed while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Only one visitor allowed at a time, one enters the room alone. Mirrored walls, reflecting water pools and sparkling lights transport viewers into a fantastical space, one that is seemingly caught in mid-breath of the universe’s creation.

It may be a sort of separate peace, some say. But stay a while longer (or at least for the full minute), and this exhibition takes on new meaning. Perhaps a more progressive way to see this exhibition is that it offers more than peace from a COVID-distraught world. Rather, Fireflies suspends the individual in a reconciliation with one’s mortality, offering a serenity in “self-obliteration”—the threading theme through Kusama’s lifetime’s work. She presents a world where the individual is catapulted into a sort of unity with the world through oblivion, like the multitude of fireflies, lights or stars that flicker, proliferate and waver in the endless ricocheting of reflection. Rather than escape, perhaps it is more a melding—an acceptance—of the individual in a chaotic world. 

The acclaimed Japanese contemporary artist, best known for her paintings, sculptures and installations that explore the conceptual idea behind the infinite, created this room-installation in 2002. Native to Japan, she moved to New York City in 1958 and rose to prominence in the 1960s avant-garde art scene spreading across America, ultimately holding enormous artistic influence and reach. The novel, innovative and immersive nature of her craftsmanship captivates audiences around the world. 

Her work often features a dense collection of polka dots and nets, inspired by vivid hallucinations of, as she describes, “flashes of light, auras, or dense field of polka dots.” Kusama’s artwork is also heavily based in conceptual art and, among the plethora of ideas she explores in her creations, features components of feminism, minimalism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. 

One particularly strong motif throughout her work is the ways in which Kusama attempts to replicate an infinite cosmos through her signature dots and fields, here carefully manipulated through light and reflection in the exhibition. Repetition of these dots through her work references the artist’s vision of the flattening of space as well as its infinite extension. It creates a melting of the foreground and background, the polka dots almost infectiously subsuming objects into the scene. Art curators cite Kusama’s troubled history with physical and sexual abuse—alongside her constant battle with various mental illnesses—as the source for much of her artwork. 

For sixty-seconds, you can step into a microcosm of Kusama’s creative universe. It’s an experience that leaves you caught in between time and space. Familiar to us in a COVID world, the isolation of the exhibition doesn’t heal, but obliterates. Yet this obliteration is not the end, Kusama tells us. What Kusama offers through her art is a place where there is no individual contribution or delineation, only equalization in unending, proliferating space. It is as though the lack of control Kusama had in her own life contributed to her ability to reposition, either subconsciously or consciously,  the viewer in a world in which the part is of little consequence apart from the whole. Kusama’s mature work doesn’t urge, doesn’t plead, doesn’t ask; she simply shows you that you, too, are a repeating apparition—and can be selfless—in infinite time and space. 

The exhibition runs through Jan. 3, 2021 at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Canaday Gallery. Tickets are $5 for nonmembers; a limited number of free tickets are available to members. Face coverings are required. More information can be found here.

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