Things to Do in Miami: Yayoi Kusama “Love Is Calling” at PAMM

The walls and floors are covered in mirrors. Protruding from the ground and ceiling are strange, tentacle-like growths, glowing in fluorescent hues and covered in black polka dots. The mirrors make the scene appear as if it goes on forever.

It sounds like a dream. But it’s real — in a sense. The tentacles might be made of inflatable plastic, but this bizarre realm does exist. It’s called “Love Is Calling,” an infinity mirror room by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and it’s on display now at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

At 94, Kusama is undeniably the world’s most famous living artist. Born and raised in Japan, she has spent a lifetime spreading a message of love and transcendence through artworks that are bold, visionary, varied in form and format, and, perhaps most important of all, fun. Since the advent of Instagram in the early 2010s, her popularity has exploded thanks to her work’s very visual, interactive nature, especially the infinity mirror rooms. These mirrored chambers work with an optical illusion that causes whatever’s inside to appear to expand into the distance. Walking into one can be an intense experience — that’s precisely the point. The artist wants us to engage with the infinite and understand our small place in the ever-expanding universe.

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“Kusama’s work, and its ability to be massively recognized by a large public, is something I think is really interesting,” says Franklin Sirmans, director of PAMM. “We think always about what works for us and Miami and our audience, and what would be interesting, exciting, intellectually stimulating.”

“Immersive art,” the field that Kusama pioneered with her infinity rooms, is something PAMM has delved deep into in recent years. “Love Is Calling” is one of several current exhibits incorporating semi-interactive, photogenic artworks. The biggest is the Leandro Ehrlich retrospective, which reviews the Venezuelan artist’s absurdist, optical-illusion art installations. There’s also Carlos Cruz-Diaz’s work “Chromosaturation,” in which visitors are immersed in a bath of deeply colored light. And Andy Warhol’s 1962 installation “Silver Clouds,” which the museum included in its joint retrospective of Warhol and fellow pop artist Marisol last year, could be considered the original immersive artwork.

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Yayoi Kusama’s infinity room at PAMM is one of the largest the artist has ever made.

Photo by Ernie Galan. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy David Zwirner and Ota Fine Arts

“It’s interesting to think in those terms, art historically and in terms of art being a part of our lives here,” Sirmans adds. “It’s fascinating to think about immersive art in the context of Miami, where there’s a place like Superblue.”

That context is what PAMM wishes to adapt to, according to Sirmans. The museum is one of the few city-associated museums in the U.S. that focuses chiefly on contemporary art, fitting for the newest major city in America. Art from Latin America and the Caribbean is a particular focus, as is art from the Black diaspora. Along with immersive art, Sirmans believes digital art will be a touchpoint for Miami. The 305 may not have a lot of famous old paintings, but this can be a chance to turn toward an art culture that’s more democratic and participatory.

“We have the opportunity to do something different as a museum,” he says. “We began in 1984; our trajectory is shorter. It allows us to be more comprehensive or interesting in a time that’s more of our own, to be better voices in speaking on the language of contemporaneity, perhaps because of our lack.”

Within that context, Kusama can be seen as a legacy artist. She’s created not only infinity mirror rooms but also paintings, sculptures, collages, clothing, video art, luxury fashion collabs, and more at a steady clip since she first exhibited work in 1952, especially since she took residence at a Tokyo mental hospital in 1977. During the same time Marisol and Warhol were taking New York, she was in the city making art and raising hell with nudist happenings, illegal gay weddings, and an open letter propositioning Richard Nixon to have sex with her in exchange for world peace. According to Sirmans, there were never plans to host anything more than “Love Is Calling” as part of the current display. Still, Miami has room for a more varied exploration of the artist’s long career, which is entering its staggering 71st year. Organizing such a retrospective is complex, but eventually, someone ought to take the plunge.

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Photo by Ernie Galan. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy David Zwirner and Ota Fine Arts

However, the unfortunate downside of Kusama’s extraordinary popularity is that most institutions only allow visitors a maximum of two minutes inside each room. Some even like to take advantage of this popularity. You need to fork over an additional $10 to access the Rubell Museum’s two infinity rooms, buying you two minutes in each room. When the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami got a hold of one in 2019, it charged $15 for one minute inside on the weekends. Massive museums such as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and London’s Tate Modern have sold out and held over their recent Kusama shows.

Thankfully PAMM does not charge an additional fee to enter the room. Access is included with general museum admission, and the queue outside the room when I visited was barely five minutes. The museum has avoided controversies over showing the work; unlike the ICA’s room, which was embroiled in the Inigo Philbrick affair shortly after it opened, “Love Is Calling” is on loan from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Its size — the work is among the largest of Kusama’s mirror rooms — was also a factor in the decision to bring it to PAMM, as Sirmans says the museum wanted to maximize the number of people that could fit inside at one time. However, if it wanted to, PAMM could sell separate admission without much controversy. Kusama may be a transcendent artist, but she’s also big business.

Still, while “Love Is Calling” may not be the first infinity mirror room that’s dropped into Miami, it certainly is the biggest and best — a must-see, especially for fans of the artist. PAMM is supplementing the show with plenty of auxiliary programming, starting with this month’s free admission during its Second Saturday on April 8. Visitors can create an “infinity puzzle” inspired by Kusama’s work, enjoy a performance from the Taiko drum troupe Fushu Daiko, and meet locally based Japanese artist Harumi Abe.

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Photo by Ernie Galan. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy David Zwirner and Ota Fine Arts

Beyond its size, what makes this room truly distinct may be what can be heard inside. The artist herself speaks to us in a voiceover, reciting, in Japanese, her poem titled “Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears.” A translation appears in English and Spanish on the wall outside the room, but that’s almost beside the point. After about a minute inside, Kusama’s ghostly voice, reciting with such conviction, caused me to drift into a trance. I stopped snapping photos, focused on her words, and took stock of where I was, absorbing my surroundings in all their alien glory.

Then the door opened. A docent poked their head inside and gently said, “Time’s up!” The two minutes were over. Infinity was within reach — but not for long.

“Yayoi Kusama: Love Is Calling.”
On view through February 11, 2024, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; Tickets cost $12 to $16; free for children 6 and under. Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday through Monday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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