One of my favourite pieces of work in the new Switch House extension to Tate Modern is The Passing Winter by Yayoi Kusama.
This had a lot to do with my fascination with art that is based on mirrors.
The work is a hollow cube about a metre square, with the walls being composed of mirrors both inside and out. The mirrors are pierced with circular holes that allow the observer to peer into the cube and to see the internal mirrors. The internal mirrors reflect each other, and thus each reflection in each mirror reflects the reflection in the mirror, which is reflecting the reflection and so on, creating a sequence of reflections that would continue infinitely were it not for the physical constraints on the mirrors (such as the fact that with each reflection a small amount of brightness is lost, making each reflection slightly dimmer than the previous one).
A recent visit to the gallery confirmed that it’s not just me who’s fascinated by mirrors.
The room that houses The Passing Winter contains a fair few other worthy pieces of contemporary art, but none of them drew the gallery-goers’ attention in quite the way that Yayoi Kusama’s work did. It was the one piece of art around which people hovered in small animated crowds. People studied the other art in the room in quiet contemplation, but when the same people approached the The Passing Winter their moods changed to ones of outward engagement. And out came the cameras.
One of the lures of The Passing Winter is obviously that the spectator is reflected in the artwork, thus effectively becoming part of the artwork itself. Everyone’s interested in themselves, so everyone’s interested in this artwork. Especially when they themselves are part of it.
I’m sure that some critics may dismiss the work because of its crowd pleasing tendencies – accusing it of being dangerously close to a fairground attraction, with its appeal being partly to the audience’s baser narcissistic tendencies – a criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Anish Kapoor’s distorting mirror pieces.
But then quite a lot of art panders to the narcissistic tendencies of its audience, if only to massage their feelings of self worth, so I don’t see that as a problem.
The photo of The Passing Winter on Tate Modern’s own web site shows the work in isolation, with no one looking at it. This makes the piece look a bit inert and doesn’t convey anything of the dialogue between the work and the audience. I hope that my photos show the enlivening effect of the work.
When I first encountered this work I wasn’t aware of who the artist was, so I was pleased when I discovered that it was Yayoi Kusama, an artist whom I already greatly admired. She’s probably best known for her ‘polka dot’ artworks – her obsessive application of coloured dots to everything that she encounters (In 2012 Tate Modern staged an excellent exhibition of Kusama’s work, their only mistake being to stage it at the same time as an exhibition of Damien Hirst, forcing an inevitable comparison between Hirst’s dot paintings and Kusama’s polka dots. Rightly or wrongly, Kusama’s obsessive polka dots made Hirst’s ranks of uniform dots look rather lazy).
It was probably at that exhibition that I first came across Kusama’s mirror rooms which, as with The Passing Winter, used the device of parallel facing mirrors to create the effect of infinite regression. It’s a common enough phenomenon (you can see it in mirror lined department store lifts any day of the week), which I remember being fascinated in during by student days many years ago, however Kusama was the first person whose work I’ve seen who’s been able to harness the effect at the level of the sublime.
I suspectt that it’s because of her mirror based artworks that I’ve embarked on my own explorations of the genre, complete with infinite regression, as you can see here – mirror based art.