Kusama, LSD, Sex With Nixon: What the FAQ is Really Going on Here?

Everything you need to know about the latest buzzy installation in Indy.
Kusama INDY MAVEN Feature

Three Instagram Stories. One and a half Final Jeopardy questions. One Oscar speech. That’s about the length of time each pair of visitors will have inside Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s elevator-sized Infinity Mirror Room, a black-and-yellow polka-dotted pumpkin extravaganza debuting at the inaugural “Harvest” festival at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields on October 4.

The room’s 45-second limit isn’t just because of the anticipated crowds—it’s on the orders of the artist herself. No visitor has spent more than 60 seconds at a time inside All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins since Kusama created the room in 2016, which is an intriguing enough fact on its own.

Here’s what you should know about the fascinating woman behind the glut of glowing gourds you’ll be seeing all over your Instagram feed this fall.

Q: Why so many pumpkins? 

A: As Robert Indiana once said of his friend Andy Warhol: “The reason he painted soup cans is that he liked soup.” Kusama’s family cultivated seeds in Japan during her childhood, and her polka-dotted pumpkins are based on the Japanese kabocha squash—which looks like a pumpkin-shaped watermelon. The second part of her rationale is way trippier, though: psychedelic hallucinations. 

Q: Wait, really?

A: The 90-year-old Kusama has experienced hallucinations since childhood in which fields of dots come to life and swallow her whole. Polka-dotted pumpkins have appeared in dozens of her pieces ever since the woman the Japanese media has christened the “princess of polka dots” created her first Infinity Mirror Room in 1965, waaaaay before Instagram was a thing.

Q: Is she still hallucinating?

A: Kusama checked herself into a mental hospital in Tokyo after a breakdown in 1977 and has lived there by choice ever since. (Her studio is a short walk away.) 

Q: Wait, did you say the newest Instagram queen is 90?

A: That’s right. And probably cooler than you were — or are — or will be — at 20, 30, 50, or beyond. She’s the world’s top-selling living female artist, and single work of hers can command more than $7 million at auction. She also claims to have performed the first same-sex marriage in the United States during a “happening” in New York in 1968, and her Infinity Mirror Rooms have been featured in an Adele video and Instagrammed by pop star Katy Perry. 

Q: Did she really offer to have sex with Richard Nixon if he’d end the Vietnam War?

A: Yes! She wrote a letter to Nixon in 1968 offering to trade sex for a ceasefire—then staged a “Nixon orgy” in her Manhattan studio. She hosted similar anti-war happenings at the Brooklyn Bridge and in Central Park in the 1960s. And she also “inspired” (read: had her work ripped off by) many of her male colleagues.

Q: Ugh. Like who?

A: Andy Warhol, for one. Kusama filled a rowboat with cloth penises and wallpapered a New York gallery with identical photocopies of it in 1963—three years before Warhol staged a show half a mile away featuring repeated pink-and-yellow screenprints of a cow. American sculptor Claes Oldenburg and Greek mixed-media artist Lucas Samaras also created pieces remarkably similar to Kusama’s shortly after she unveiled hers. (Kusama’s phallic couch predated Oldenburg’s “soft sculptures” of objects ranging from a baked potato to a toilet.)

 Q: Is 45 seconds really enough time to take in all those pumpkins? 

A: Researchers say the average visitor spends between 15 and 30 seconds looking at a work of art, so you’ll still be coming out ahead. But, for the record, there’s no rule against a repeat visit the next day.

Q: That room looks like it’d be trippy to stroll through on LSD…

A: Don’t even think about it. 

How to see “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”: A timed ticket is included in the price of admission to Newfields’ Harvest festival this weekend. If you visit after that, the exhibit is included with museum admission (the room will be at Newfields through March). You can reserve a time in advance at https://discovernewfields.org/calendar/infinitely-kusama 

Photo: Courtesy of Newfields

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