Infinite adoration for Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors

The Japanese artist’s retrospective comes to the AGO in March

Infinite adoration for Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors

If you’ve been commuting in Toronto lately, you’ve likely seen minimalist advertisements around the city featuring mostly blank canvases covered with red polka dots. These vibrant designs, which also cover streetcars and construction sites, advertise the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors art exhibition, which comes to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) this spring from March 3 to May 7. It is the exhibit’s only Canadian stop on a two-year North American tour.

Infinity Mirrors is a retrospective on acclaimed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and it features six of her immersive and participatory art pieces. The pieces on display were all created between 1965 and 2016, and they exist in confined rooms meant to accommodate only two to three people at a time, in order to ensure a more private experience of the work for the individual.

At 88 years old, Kusama is experiencing newfound popularity. Her work is now reaching peak levels of adoration and respect, as her retrospectives have sold out around the world. Though she has been creating art since the late 1950s and has worked in similar circles as other avant-garde artists like Andy Warhol and Allan Kaprow, she has never been as much of a household name as she has been in the 21st century.

The works comprising the exhibit are pieces from the 1960s, 1990s, and 2000s that feel timeless and are meant to evoke feelings of being lost in infinity, making them perfectly suited to a retrospective. The pieces invite you to experience a deeply personal exploration of yourself as your eyes wander through rooms filled with countless images of Kusama’s patterned sculptures or seas of LED lights aglow in the mirrored walls. The rooms’ evocative titles, like “Aftermath of Obliteration and Eternity” and “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” pair well with their visual accompaniments.

Artist Yayoi Kusama sits submerged in her thought-provoking exhibitionist artwork. PHOTO COURTESY OF YAYOI KUSAMA

Since 1975, Kusama has spent the majority of her life in a Japanese mental hospital that she voluntarily checked herself into on the advice of her psychiatrist, and she has created her art in a studio near the hospital. Her work creates visual representations of the audio-visual hallucinations she suffers from.

“My artwork is an expression of my life, particularly of my mental disease,” said Kusama in an 1999 interview with BOMB magazine. “I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease.”

Kusama’s growth in popularity since the exhibit started touring in 2017 is likely due in part to the heavy advertisement of her work that social media permits. An experience like Infinity Mirrors, one that is both deeply personal but also highly exclusive due to its limited availability, is the kind of event that takes over social media feeds worldwide.

Her mirrored rooms benefit greatly from daily documentation — and the selfie specifically — as sharing their images allows audiences around the globe a glimpse into Kusama’s world. The AGO has even encouraged sharing selfies taken in the mirrored rooms with #InfiniteKusama.

While Kusama has been creating these experimental and deeply participatory works for decades, her art’s themes of infinity, contemplation of the self, and the mystery of the afterlife ring strong and true now more than ever. Her art represents both a complement to our involved digital age and a moment in time that can exist completely apart.

Whether one chooses to document their short time spent in the Infinity Mirrors exhibit or not, the effect these six rooms will have on their audience will be sure to bring us all closer to Kusama’s mind and vision, as well our own individual perceptions of self.

Obtaining tickets for the exhibits has already become notoriously difficult, with tens of thousands of tickets selling out each time that the AGO releases more. Understanding the demand, the AGO website has an 11-part FAQ on how to better your chances of getting tickets to the exhibit, as well as separate sections explaining the importance of arriving on time and how long a guest will have in each Infinity Room.

The long queues and exhaustive planning necessary may not seem enticing, but the gallery has never before had such a popular exhibit, where demand greatly exceeds the number of tickets and available time slots. The next batch of tickets for Infinity Mirrors goes on sale on March 6 at 10:00 am.

Questioning Canadian identity in The Idea of North

Lawren Harris’ work reflects disenchantment with city life, desire for spiritual salvation

Questioning Canadian identity in <em>The Idea of North</em>

What makes Lawren Harris’ iconic paintings ‘Canadian’? It could be his ethereal depictions of Lake Superior — masterpieces of high modernism — that adorn crowded galleries, inspire glossy postcards, and grace well-appointed living rooms across the nation. But are they ours?

This question surrounds The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) latest exhibition of the artist’s paintings, which was curated by American entertainer Steve Martin alongside with Cynthia Burlingham, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs at the Hammer Museum, and Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the AGO. The work of Harris, a Canadian national treasure, started its tour in the United States, where it is largely unknown.

The exhibition tracks the development of the artist’s style and subject matter, as it changed from urban landscapes to the sparse mountain vistas and the glaciers that he became renowned for. Harris’ early-period paintings of Toronto’s impoverished Ward neighbourhood are displayed alongside historical maps of the city, and his well-known Lake Superior paintings. The exhibition highlights Harris’ methodology and presents his work as part of Canada’s “cultural imagination.”

After producing sketches of various natural scenes across different time periods, Harris collated them on canvas to produce landscapes that captured the essence of regions but were not bound to a particular place or time.

As they alter between realist and dream-like, Harris’s paintings raise questions about Canadian identity; his work has become an opus dedicated to the North.

A divided Toronto

Old Houses, Toronto, Winter. 1919. COURTESY OF THE AGO

“Old Houses, Toronto, Winter” by Lawren Harris. 1919.
COURTESY OF THE AGO

Harris’ early work shows the postwar-Toronto of the 1920s, a time of great inequality and social unrest. A scion of the wealthy Massey-Harris family of industrialists, Harris was born with the means to pursue art unfettered by financial restrictions. It was this awareness of his position of privilege that shaped the focus of his early subject matter: a struggling urban population beset by low wages and poverty so intolerable that it regularly provoked strikes.

The first images of the exhibition depict the immigrants and working poor who lived in the hardscrabble conditions of the Ward. Beginning around 1900, Eastern Europeans immigrated to Toronto in record numbers, gravitating toward the Ward. At the time, the neighbourhood was comprised mostly of descendants of fugitive slaves and the children of immigrant railway workers.

The exhibition features paintings of residents wandering through mud streets lined with lean-tos and row houses crumbling under roofs of corrugated iron. Homes open out into squalid alleys, where porch doors with broken springs lie abandoned under a canopy of clotheslines hoisting drab sheets like sodden flags.

A display showing video footage of downtown Toronto around the time that Harris began painting the Ward accompanies the artwork. While watching a clip of a 1920s streetcar, I overhear a girl chuckling, “Probably the same one I took this morning.”

The images of the Ward show a walled-in slum, a sort of garrison situated steps away from what is now City Hall and Queen Street West. The Ward was a ghetto in the predominantly white Toronto of the 1920s. Urban renewal efforts only pushed residents into deeper isolation, as the Ward was gradually erased from view.

Into the wild

Harris saw economic injustice as a basic feature of capitalism. In the wake of World War I, his growing social consciousness was informed by the war’s devastation and its burden on the working poor. During wartime, many of these workers toiled in unregulated factories, while others fought on the front line, only to return to unexpected poverty, while their employers bathed in post-war prosperity.

Harris became interested in the spiritual movement of Theosophy while studying art in Europe, after being exposed to Eastern philosophy. Theosophy stresses the possibility of personal revelation through an intuition of God’s presence.

Driven by the bleak realities of the city and a growing spiritual and political consciousness, Harris sought refuge in nature.

Financing excursions to Lake Superior with artists who would eventually form the Group of Seven, Harris sought what the exhibition describes as a “distant and idealized nature that existed apart from the human condition.” In Lake Superior, he would find a “space of rich renewal,” according to Andrew Hunter, one of the curators.

Tree stumps bathed in luminescence, twisted strands of branches gesturing out toward clouds swollen with bright white light — these images rupture the air-conditioned sterility of the gallery with a surreal sense of motion and lucidity. From the iconic North Shore to the Lake Superior Hills, the landscapes breathe, ripple, and cascade with living energy.

The question of verisimilitude haunts their promise of transcendence. In the centre of the room is a glass case lined with sheets of brown paper, widely regarded as Harris’ best work. Working with a pencil, Harris sketched out crude skeletons of the landscape, transposing various drawings into one composite that would form the final painting.

Break from reality

Mount Thule, Bylot Island. 1930. COURTESY OF THE AGO

“Mount Thule, Bylot Island” by Lawren Harris. 1930.
COURTESY OF THE AGO

The resulting image is not representative of any “real” place in the North. Rather, it is the reconstruction of multiple elements, filtered through the imagination of the painter. This raises a question: if his landscapes are the product of his consciousness, what, then qualifies it as Canadian?

Literary critic and University of Toronto academic Northrop Frye developed a conception of Canada’s relationship with the wilderness that helps to explain the appeal of Harris’ idealized representations of the North. For Frye, Canada was not a “frontier culture” like the Wild West of the United States, a distant zone that one entered to strike it rich or court death, or a place of promise and danger that one could visit and return from to the safety of their home. Frye claimed that for Canada, the culture was not one of frontiers, but garrisons.

The Canadian dependence on the fur trade meant settlements were organized around garrisons, fortresses that kept trappers warm during unfathomably cold winters. The harshness of the weather forced them indoors, safe from predators and the elements. Nature was kept at a distance.

Though the country was full of danger, it was also full of sublime beauty: the cascades of the Montmorenci and the tranquility of the St. Lawrence River, coaxing travellers deeper inward and swallowing them up like a whale; the awing heights of mountain rock and ice, sprawling like the sleeping giants of Ojibwe folklore. The landscape was so grand that it required a new poetry; the old Romantic model was better suited for the placid English lakes and gardens than the overwhelming darkness of the Canadian winter.

Harris’ paintings depict a landscape awesomely beautiful but hardly human. He was moved to re-envision the North because of the hardships he witnessed in the city. His diminished faith in human nature prompted an escapist sojourn into the frigid wilderness, where he could reconstruct nature as he saw fit, and create an interpretation of the Canadian North that is partly fantasy.

At the end of the exhibition, words are projected onto a wall underneath the title “Idea of North.” One note in a child’s handwriting reads: “Is that where Santa lives?”

Students of America

The AGO displays the work of past American photographers

Students of America

I took an afternoon walking tour of Harlem, New York around the same time I watched Walter Hill’s Warriors (1979) for the first time. With little knowledge of the area, my perception of northern Manhattan was regrettably limited to an apocalyptic action thriller starring Michael Beck.

While the area itself served to immediately dismantle this perception, the tour didn’t do much to shed light on the neighbourhood’s history, either. Gentrification had settled in nicely. Our tour guide told us that average asking prices for real estate could range between one and four million dollars.

Weirdly, a tour of a Toronto art gallery exhibit appears to have shed more light on the disenfranchised corners of America than the actual locations themselves. The AGO’s Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s-1980s captures the existence of forgotten communities in the land of the free. In doing so, we’re presented with raw documentation of impoverished communities, taboo lifestyles, and hidden secrets, thought to be disposed of prior to the turn of the century.

It’s a valiant effort for an ambitious project; documenting four decades worth of societal evolution is no easy gig.

Each room in the exhibit — and there are six of them — display the collection of a single photographer. Most of the action takes place in New York, it seems, but an occasional group of visuals from Maryland or the Deep South will pop up here and there.

There’s no chronological order of which I was made aware of, either, but that’s no problem: each photographer’s catalogue encapsulates a community far separate from the rest.

[pullquote-default]It’s a valiant effort for an ambitious project; documenting four decades worth of societal evolution is no easy gig.[/pullquote-default]

The exhibit resolves to ease you in with the photography of Gary Winogrand, a street photographer from the Bronx whose work traversed the 50’s and 60’s. The concept is presented through photos of bohemian shoppers and shaggy-headed protesters, and the message is fairly simple: American life in the postwar period is better, but only for some.

“You could say that I’m a student of photography,” his bio in the gallery reads. “And I am – but really I’m a student of America.”

Finished with the easy stuff, the exhibit stomps on the gas peddle by the time you glance through room number two. It’s here that we discover the nauseating disposition of Harlem in the 1960’s. Photographer Gordon Parks, the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine, captures the deplorable living conditions for large populations that crammed themselves into the brownstones of northern Manhattan.

Heating is remote, and rooming is accompanied by small rodents and house-pests. I had previously been wondering why a picture of John F. Kennedy — his back turned to the camera — had marked the entranceway to this room, but it becomes fairly obvious upon seeing the documentation of a community ignored by its government.

The exhibit aims to uncover the true outsiders of America. Not the hippies — whose counter-culture lifestyle eventually morphed into mainstream culture — nor the Beat Generation, whose hyper-masculinity could tend to obscure the movement’s nobility. Rather, the exhibit uncovers the not-so-romanticized outsiders of America: cross-dressers in 70’s New York; mentally disabled patients in remote New England institutions; impoverished city-dwellers riddled with unemployment and substance abuse.

The photographs provided are less fascinating in terms of artistic merit as they are in terms of actual subject matter.

The exhibit ends with the work of Danny Lyon, a photographer who got in with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and documented their journey across the States in true Sons of Anarchy fashion. Again, here the exhibit returns to a rather cliché photographic style.

Considering what lies in between, though, it strikes a necessary balance.

Living arts: learning how to edit Wikipedia

The Varsity attends AGO's Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Living arts: learning how to edit Wikipedia

I was overwhelmed; I was late; I was sweating; and I was uncertain of where to go. I had just stepped into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where I was about to attend my first ever Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. The edit-a-thon was hosted by the AGO as part of the Art + Feminism initiative.

After some searching — namely, wandering aimlessly for about 10 minutes — I found the staircase to the Education Commons where the event was supposed to take place. Upon turning the corner I was trampled by a flock of screaming children. As I quickly discovered, the Education Commons is right beside the Hands on Learning Centre, where parents drop off their kids after they start manhandling Group of Seven paintings with their sticky fingers. Once my head stopped spinning and my ears ceased ringing, I looked over to a row of tables where people were diligently typing away on their laptops. The serenity of their focus immediately set me at ease. I walked to the information table and was greeted by a friendly volunteer who kindly forgave me for being late and created my first Wikipedia account.

With my first task completed and my anxious stomach settled, I made a beeline for the refreshments. Cookie crumbs raining down my chin, I followed a volunteer’s pointed finger towards a tutorial where I would learn the basics of Wikipedia editing.

The tutorial was full of women being instructed by Amy Furness, known on Wikipedia as ‘Artchivist1.’ Furness, the primary organizer of the Toronto event, has a quiet intensity and a clear passion for Wikipedia. She informed us that these events were happening all over the world. As she pointed out, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, only 10 per cent of Wikipedia contributors identify as female.

Art + Feminism believes this leads to a gender imbalance in content. The initiative’s overall goal for an edit-a-thon event is to focus on using Wikipedia to highlight women who have made significant contributions to art and are underrepresented on the online encyclopedia.

Thanks to Furness, I began to feel fully equipped with the basics of Wikipedia etiquette and coding. In the main hall where we were to commence our “quilting bee,” as one volunteer described the event, people with yellow stickers that said ‘WIKI’ started showing up. The WIKIs were available to answer any questions that newbies like us might have.

I spoke with one woman, Anne, who is a Wikipedia administrator. She helped me out when I encountered trouble with my edits. Anne is a lively retiree with a Wi-Fi stick that she takes with her everywhere. The stick allows her to edit on the GO train or in the car. She told me that she has edited over 60,000 Wikipedia articles. She joked that editing Wikipedia articles was much better than doing crosswords in order to pass the time. I have to agree.

I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment upon editing my first article. The first edit I made was to add an ‘a’ to a sentence in an article about a Canadian painter and sketch artist named  Caroline Armington. The AGO library was co-hosting the event, so their staff were available to help the editors using the library resources. I was given a file on Armington, full of newspaper clippings and other fact sheets. By the end of the event I had only had enough time to start fixing minor errors on Armington’s article. Even though I made little headway, I was immediately hooked. I felt as though I was contributing to history and to posterity, my focus interrupted only by the screams of the playing children. “This is for you!” I yelled, as I shook my fist at them jokingly.

A light in the dark

The AGO’s latest exhibit highlight J.M.W. Turner’s obsession with depicting sunlight

A light in the dark

J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free is the latest exhibit to feature at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is a collection of more than fifty pieces of Turner’s artwork which showcase his later, experimental works.

A talented landscape painter, Turner’s romantic style of painting persisted even as he changed the medium in which he worked. Where he missed the mark, however, was in capturing the attention of his viewers.

Turner visited Switzerland, Italy, and France, and created basic watercolor compositions of Lake Geneva and the waterways of Venice.

The colors in paintings such as “Fisherman on the Lagoon, Moonlight” and “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella from the Steps of the Europa” are calming, but not particularly unique. The exhibit spends a lot of its energy focusing on a very similar kind of painting presented in different color schemes, which unfortunately fails to captivate the audience’s interest. 

However, as you stroll through the exhibition, a gratifying change is revealed at the introduction of Turner’s oil and canvas paintings. In contrast to the watercolor pieces that showcase Turner’s basic depictions of European landscape, the oil paintings are more complex. His obsession with light is intriguing, and the circular motion of the paint brush perfectly complements the faded saintly figures, noticeable in “The Angel Standing in the Sun.” Equally astounding is the “Shade and Darkness — The Evening of the Deluge.” At first sight, the painting portrays an abstract source of light; however, as you near the painting and begin to examine the details, you notice the faint outline of human and animal figures swirling around the center of the canvas.   

Many of Turner’s naval portraits also incorporate this recurring theme of light. His two famous paintings, “Snow Storm” and “Peace – Burial at Sea,” are spectacular examples of the balance between tranquility and chaos. The dark scenes of an aggressive sea are interrupted with a gleaming and soft touch of light. The brush strokes are undefined and unpredictable, which makes you wonder what Turner’s intentions were when creating his pieces. 

While segments of the exhibit can be tedious, Painting Set Free is worth attending for the moments of reward that come with the occasional Turner ‘masterpiece.’ While Turner certainly isn’t for everyone, the representation of light that runs through his paintings showcase a captivating progression of the British painter’s career. 

J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free runs until January 31, 2016 at the AGO.