By: Angela Guardiani
Unless you’ve been living in a state of complete media isolation over the last few months, you must be aware of the huge exhibit currently on at the Art Gallery of Ontario - Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. It is everything it is hyped up to be: both vast and intimate, immersive and spectacular. But you may not be aware of another show that is just as intriguing. Yoko Ono’s The Riverbed at the Gardiner Museum is smaller in scale but more interactive, less solitary and more introspective, micro where Kusama’s is macro. I visited both shows recently and found, despite some huge contrasts in the physical art itself, more similarities than differences. They are, after all, both shows that ask you to consider your place in the universe and in society. Kusama and Ono invite you to think about both the solitude and the kinship of being people. You will not come out of either experience quite the same.
Full disclosure: I started my plans to see Infinity Mirrors last December and booked my tickets in January. It is totally possible that the frantic hype around the show will make getting tickets next to impossible. But if you do manage to get those golden tickets, you’ll start your visit in an elevator, being carried up to the AGO’s cavernous fifth floor. Did you even know the AGO had a fifth floor? There are no windows and the ceilings are toweringly high. It’s a perfect blank slate. You’ll proceed into a maze of rooms with some of Kusama’s paintings and installations, and lots of photos of Kusama herself as you follow a timeline of her career. Don’t miss them - everyone will be rushing to the Infinity Rooms themselves, but Kusama’s delicately shaded dots and scales are really something.
Of the rooms, Phalli’s Field (one of Kusama’s first) is the most underwhelming. It reminded me of a department store dressing room.
The most well-known and well-documented of the rooms, Aftermath of the Obliteration of Eternity and The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, are everything they appear to be on Instagram. Tiny flecks of light blink in and out of existence. The darkness is soft and surrounds you like a heavy blanket. It really is a slightly outer-worldly experience.
My favourite room of all, though, is Dots Obsession - Love Transformed Into Dots. Kusama’s love for polka dots is well known and she’s said they are a symbol of eternity for her. In this piece, she plays with size - as you walk into the space, you are surrounded by huge inflated pink balls covered in black polka dots. It feels like a 1950s Hollywood interpretation of a French starlet’s dressing room or a very stylish beach party, a bit saucy, a lot playful. Suddenly I felt like a child again, with the urge to run around and bounce off those surfaces. One of the balls is actually a room filled with the soft light of pink-and-black lights floating like lanterns; another offers a peephole into a tiny kaleidoscopic world of pink bubbles. I can’t explain why it feels so exhilarating, but it does.
Infinity Mirrors is full of spectacle. You stand back and let the colours and shapes and patterns and feelings wash over you. The Riverbed, in contrast, doesn’t offer lights and mirrors. I can describe the exhibition to you in a sentence - a huge room in three parts, an undulating line of river rocks on the floor, white walls crisscrossed with string, tables piled with broken crockery, string, glue, and tape. It doesn’t overwhelm. In fact, it’s quite the opposite - the exhibit seems sparse until you look closer. Then you’ll find Ono’s instructions. Stone Piece - the rocks - encourages you to pick up the stones and move them wherever you see fit. In Line Piece - the string - you are asked to hammer nails into the walls and weave string in and out like a net ceiling. Or, if you’re not into string, you can draw a picture in the blank sketchbooks scattered throughout the room. In Mend Piece, you use what you can to put broken pieces back together. You get out of the piece what you put in, amplified. As you sit and attempt to knit, weave, tape or glue the broken dishes back together, you can’t help but acknowledges whatever brokenness exists inside yourself, or in the world at large. The tables are communal and a bar with bright red espresso machines encourages visitors to sit, have a drink, mend, and socialize. I spent about two hours in the Gardiner - about the same time as I did at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
A quick word on selfies - there’s been a lot of ink spilled on how people waste their time inside Infinity Mirrors trying to snap a picture. But the experience is so ephemeral - twenty to thirty seconds, barely enough time to get settled in the space. I don’t see anything wrong with taking a few quick photos to fix that transient experience in your memory. If you really want to put your phone down, go to The Riverbed. There’s no photography allowed there - you need to be present.
Kusama makes you feel like a speck in the universe, floating, unanchored. Ono makes you feel like a thread in a net, a leaf on a tree, like you are moving purposefully to build something bigger. But I get the sense that both shows have the same message; all of us are alone. Paradoxically, the fact that we all share that aloneness means the exact opposite - we are not alone. We are all connected. Of course, that’s just my take on it. Infinity Mirrors is a challenge to get in, but well worth it. The Riverbed is an understated adventure. I hope you get a chance to see them both and carry away whatever feelings and impressions make their mark on you.
Infinity Mirrors shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 27th. Tickets, if you can get them, are $30 and are available exclusively online at: ago.ca. The Riverbed shows at the Gardiner Museum until June 3rd. Tickets are $15 and are available at gardinermuseum.on.ca or at the museum.