Visual Art in Virtual Reality

MSU Broad and Able Eyes

Over the past few months, cultural institutions have out of necessity navigated creative ways of making their content available online.   This works better for some forms of media than others.  Most of us already experience music digitally by default, and what happens in the recording studio is pretty much exactly what we experience through our headphones; little gets lost in translation.  But the visual arts exist in space, and they lose a dimension when viewed online.  But emerging technologies, particularly 360-degree photography and virtual reality (VR), have the potential to make digitally exploring visual culture much more rewarding.

Without getting into the technical details, a VR headset (like those offered by the brands Oculus and Vive) makes the Street View content from Google Maps fully immersive and interactive.  Since Google has taken its cameras into many museums, cultural institutions, and architectural spaces, this makes it possible to navigate these spaces not just on a regular computer screen, but also in VR.  With a VR headset, we see the Google Map imagery life-size and surrounding us in 360 degrees, and it really does disconcertingly seem to place us on location.

There are admittedly some problems with viewing art in virtual reality.  Pixilation can be an issue.  On a regular computer screen, a Google Street View image might look just fine, but with a VR headset, even slightly pixelated images are rendered as aggravatingly blurry.  The Google Street View rendering of the interior of New York’s Metropolitan Art Museum, for example, looks great on a computer screen, but the paintings get pretty fuzzy when seen in VR.  Exterior views of architectural spaces are much more forgiving.  A second problem (with or without VR) is that Google’s 360-degree cameras photograph interiors from a vantage point of about eight feet in the air, which can be problematic; if you try to “stand” directly in front of a painting you’ll often find yourself looking down at the work from an awkward angle.

In some instances, though, this elevated vantage point is actually useful.  One of the best places to digitally explore is the Doge’s Palace in Venice; the extra boost we get from Google’s camera offers us a marginally better view of the Renaissance murals which cover every inch of its walls and ceiling.  We can also get satisfyingly closer to the marbles which once adorned the Parthenon, now housed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.  And we’re offered a much better perspective of some of the larger than life, cinematic Napoleonic propaganda (such as David’s Coronation of Napoleon) that adorns the walls of the Palace of Versailles.

Among the museums which are rendered in sufficiently high definition so as to not appear pixilated (even when viewed through an unforgiving VR headset) include the British Museum, where the imagery is so crisp that we can read the didactic text on the wall.  The same could be said for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Also impressively lucid are Google’s renderings of the Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some architectural spaces and ensembles especially worth exploring include the Peruvian city of Machu Picchu and the Palace of Versailles and its gardens.  The dazzling, colonnaded interior of the Mosque of Cordoba [later converted to a cathedral] is a fascinating bit of history set in stone; as we navigate its interior, we experience it as a mash-up of both arabesque and European architectural elements.  A personal favorite space to digitally wander is the luminous interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.   Closer to home is the much under-rated Driehaus Museum in Chicago, a three-story Gilded-Age mansion which has been preserved and functions as an excellent period museum.

“Machu Picchu as viewed in Google Street View”

“La Sagrada Familia as viewed in Google Street View.”

In Michigan, Google’s omniscient cameras have photographed nearly all our streets, but disappointingly few cultural institutions.  One notable exception is Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, rendered in impressively high resolution.  The park is now open again, but during the Covid shutdown, Meijer Gardens found inventive ways to bring the gardens to the public via Facebook, including posting 360-degree video walk-throughs of some of its spaces; although not as immersive as VR, this nevertheless made its Online content satisfyingly interactive.

One street in Michigan that doubles as a cultural institution is the Heidelberg Project.  An interesting feature about viewing Google Street View through the VR App Wander (a Google Map program specifically packaged for Oculus VR headsets) is that whenever a place has been photographed by Google more than once, we can reset the date, and see what the place looked like at each successive photoshoot.  The Heidelberg Project is particularly fluid, so it’s interesting to see how the project evolved yearly (starting in 2009, when Google first photographed the space) as its elements and structures appear and disappear.

We can also virtually navigate parts of Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, which offers a VR-compatible virtual tour of its space, and in impressively high resolution.   The interior was photographed not by Google, but by Able Eyes.  Although we can’t enter any of the Broad’s exhibition galleries in this walk-through, we can still navigate the atrium and public spaces, which are enough to sufficiently showcase architect Zaha Hadid’s relish of counterintuitive, angular forms.

 

MSU Broad and Able Eyes

There’s certainly no substitute for seeing art and architecture in person, of course.  But it’s nevertheless exciting to be on the cusp of emerging technologies which help us experience visual culture in full immersion.  Increasingly, it’s becoming possible to experience art digitally much like we can with music, with little getting lost in translation.  Wolfgang Goethe once even described architecture as “frozen music,”  and these new technologies allow us to explore these spaces in surprisingly lucid detail, note for note, and in fully immersive, navigable three dimensions.

Contemporary Glass @ Flint Institute of Arts

Installation View, All images courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Two years ago, the Flint Art Institute opened the doors to its newly completed 11,000 square-foot Contemporary Glass Wing, supplemented by a 3,620 square foot glass arena where glassblowers offer demonstrations to audiences who can watch from stadium-style seating.  Chic and emphatically modern, these new spaces seem to proclaim that while handcrafted glass is an ancient art, it’s also a medium for the 21st century and it will definitely be here in the future. The wing is home to a fine collection of eighty-eight glass artists representing sixteen countries, making this one of the best venues in the country for viewing contemporary glass.

The works on view come from the collection of the serendipitously  named Sherwin and Shirley Glass, and are currently on loan from the Isabel foundation.  The heart of the collection is glass that emerged from the Studio Glass Movement, which had its roots in Toledo, Ohio–itself home to a fine glass collection.  The movement began when Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino engineered ways for artisans to create glass in their own studios with relatively small furnaces.  They held a famous workshop on the subject at the Toledo Art Museum in 1962 (among others, Dale Chihuly was present), energizing the movement and creating the nexus which allowed for it to attain a global reach.

Suggesting highlights from the collection is a little difficult, given its strength.  Karen LaMonte’s Dress Impression with a Traincertainly warrants mention.  Here, viewers encounter a dress reminiscent of what you might expect to find draped on a Greek Aphrodite, except there’s no Aphrodite under these folds, merely a void created from a cast of a model.  Her work subtly addresses the tension between the body and the spirit, though one’s principal thought will likely simply be “how did she make that?!”

Cast glass Dimensions: 58 5/16 × 22 1/2 × 43 5/16 in. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, L2017.143

Demonstrating the often-surprising trompe l’oeil possibilities of glass art, William Morris creates deceptive works inspired by African art like Zande Man and Bull Trophy, each seemingly fashioned out of wood and ivory.  Similarly deceptive are the organic-looking elements of Debora Moore’s Orchid Tree, which looks uncannily like an arrangement of brittle fragments of twigs and withered petals.  The overwhelming majority of works in this collection are sculptural, but Miriam Silvia Di Fiore’s Washing Boardapplies glass wire and thinly ground glass to create illustrative landscapes that seem almost painterly.

Blown glass, steel stand Dimensions: 26 × 16 × 16 in. (66 × 40.6 × 40.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Flameworked and kiln-worked glass, found object Dimensions: 30 3/4 × 16 × 5 3/4 in. (78.1 × 40.6 × 14.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

This collection forcefully advances the argument that abstract art can indeed be stunningly beautiful (incidentally, the FIA has some impressively accessible abstract art across all genres).  The billowing forms of Marvin Lipofski are colorful abstractions reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe flowers, but rendered in three dimensions.  And staple to any collection of contemporary glass are the works of Chihuly; here, a set of his characteristically biomorphic bowls nestle into each other somewhat like Matryoshka stacking dolls.  Works like these can easily serve as a gateway-drug into the world of abstraction for those who aren’t especially fond of abstract art.

Acid-polished blown glass Dimensions: 15 × 21 3/4 × 16 1/2 in. (38.1 × 55.2 × 41.9 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Many of these works are from Eastern Europe, a testament to the region’s history of glassmaking which stretches back to the Renaissance.  Surprisingly, even while Communism exerted its dampening effect on the arts, glass artists were comparatively immune from restrictive policies, since the authorities didn’t think glass art had any subversive potential. The abstract works of Stanislav Libensky and his wife Jaroslavia Brychtova are a foil to state-sanctioned Socialist Realism, triumphantly making the case for abstraction and self-expression.  The monumental scale of their collaborative Green Eye of the Pyramid helps to situate this work a visual anchor for the collection.

Cast, cut and polished glass, I-Beam pedestal, Dimensions: 82 1/2 × 113 × 29 3/4 in., 2000 lb.  Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

None of this is currently on view to the public, of course, but it will be eventually.  In the meantime, the FIA has done an excellent job of digitizing its collection.  Viewers can browse an online catalogue of art from the museum; one page offers selected highlights accompanied with audio guides, making the experience more informative and satisfying than simply clicking through pictures online.  The Contemporary Glass page currently offers a catalogue of the FIA’s glass collection, and most works are accompanied by information about the artist.  The FIA also produced a fine print catalogue of its glass collection, replete with beauty-shots of each work that fill the entire page, and occasionally spill onto a second.

Centuries ago, Abbot Suger, the mastermind behind the French Gothic style, famously referred to the light that passes through stained-glass as Lux Nova, or transformed, heavenly light.  Best, of course, to experience its magic in person.  But not all is lost in translation when viewing glass online.  Many of these works are at their best when tactfully backlit by soft light, an effect that the luminosity of the computer screen almost seems to replicate.   So until the FIA is able to safely open its doors to the public again, do take advantage of the chance to browse its glass collection which has been placed online in its entirety, and, of course, is completely free of charge.

Installation View, Courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Glass Exhibition at the Flint Art Institute. The FIA staff is working hard to get ready for the moment when they  will be able to open their doors to welcome you to visit the galleries. Although they haven’t set a date yet, FIA is preparing for the opportunity to reconnect with you while practicing social distancing throughout a virus free facility.

A New State of Matter @ GRAM

A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass at the At the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Detroit, 2017. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 16.5” x 13.5” x 11”. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Glass defies definition; it’s neither liquid nor solid, and as such it’s been described by physicists as “a new state of mater.” At the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), a visually dazzling exhibit of glass art makes the point that skilled artists can make this enigmatic mater look like pretty much anything.  Glass, A New State of Matter comprises work by an international body of nineteen artists who skillfully manipulate glass in concert with a diverse array of other media: wood, plants, and even  uranium.  The first major exhibition of glass art in the GRAM’s history, the show highlights the stunning versatility of glass, and however it’s used and in whatever form it assumes, the beauty of the physicality of the glass itself is always paramount.

Glass is an ancient substance, dating back to the ancient Egyptians of about 3,000 BC, but the overwhelming majority of the works on view are emphatically modern, and many were created with the aid of emerging technologies.   An ensemble of works by Norwood Viviano applies 3D printing in glass to render cityscapes of actual cities which also allude to their respective histories.   A 3D rendered map of Detroit, ground zero of the auto industry, has as its foundation a cast-glass automobile engine block.  And a map of Grand Rapids, bisected by the Grand River, rests atop a wooden table, an appropriate emblem for a city known for its historic 20th Century contributions to the furniture industry.

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Grand Rapids, 2020. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 22 x 17 x 29 ½ inches. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Addressing the 21st century phenomenon of social media is Charlotte Potter’s Pending, a complex work which, when viewed straight on, assumes the form of something like a firework blast.  Hundreds of small glass cameo portraits burst out into the viewer’s space, dangling from wires affixed to the gallery wall.  It’s a work which visualizes the artist’s pending Facebook friend requests.  Potter rendered the profile pictures of each request in blue and white glass, colors reminiscent of a Victorian-era shell-cameo necklace or broach.  The length of the wire from which each cameo dangles corresponds to the number of mutual friends Potter shares with each individual.  Her rendering of Facebook profile pictures to look like shell-cameos works as subtle commentary on the often-airbrushed and fastidiously curated digital versions of ourselves that we tend to present on social media, which ultimately serve the same ennobling purpose as a Victorian-era cameo.

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

There’s a literal savage beauty in Etsuko Ichikawa’s luminous blue and green spherical orbs which glow in a dark corner of the gallery suite like little marbled earths.  The unlikely inspiration for Leaving a Legacy was the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the disastrous tsunami which struck Japan’s coast in 2011.  After learning that nuclear waste can be contained behind glass in a process called vitrification, Ichikawa created spherical orbs which contain (in every sense of the word) traces of uranium, which causes the orbs to eerily glow when lit by a black light, and they speak to the uneasy proximity with which we coexist today with nuclear energy and nuclear waste.

Etsuko Ichikawa (Japanese/American, b. 1963). Leaving a Legacy, 2017. Hot-sculpted uranium glass, 33 x 72 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Winston Wächter Fine Art, Seattle

In contrast with some of the high-tech and ultra-modern works on view, April Surgent’s Portrait of an Iceberg comes across as an homage to traditional painting; her serene photo-realist work even takes the form of a triptych, which has deep roots in art history. Working from original photographs, Surgent meticulously engraves images of the natural world in glass, and her finished works are evocative of the painted blurry photographs of Gerhard Richter.  They’re beautiful, but they also gently speak to the need to restore wounded ecosystems and address climate change.  And her slow working method of engraving into glass is a performative act of defiance that pushes against the aggressively rapid pace of the digital age.

Flaunting the versatility and trompe l’oeil capability of glass, Tali Grinshpan’s Hope is a work that mimics with arresting believability the soft and paper-thin fabric of a Baroque-era ruff-collar.  Fragility is a recurrent motif in her work, and Tikun (To Mend)  comprises dozens of charred and crumpled brittle-looking vessels in varied states of ruin and (dis)repair.  Like a Mark Rothko painting, the work uses the language of abstraction to convey deep feeling, in this case, a meditation on the breaking and mending we inevitably experience in our lives.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Hope from the series Of Innocence and Experience, 2016. Pâte de verre, 10 x 10 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Tikun (To Mend) from the series Rituals, 2016. Pâte de verre, 100 vessels, 3 x 3 x 3 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.

Complimenting Glass A New State of Matter is an auxiliary one-room micro-exhibition, Looking (at-into-through) Glass, featuring glass as it appears in works from the GRAM’s permanent collection.  Paintings and photographs reveal some of the varied and many ways artists use elements like windows, mirrors, and reflections in their work.  Bruce McCombs’ painting Ed’s Easy Diner is a watercolor tour de force which renders the shiny and reflective glass facade of a dive restaurant with the same exacting photorealist detail we might expect from a Richard Estes painting.  Also on view is Tir (from the Conversion series by Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian), which was recently purchased by the GRAM; the luminous arabesque patterns on this multifaceted geometric glass sculpture reflect shards of light into the gallery space much in the same way stained-glass windows diffuse light onto a cathedral floor.

Glass, A New State of Matter is a crowd-pleasing exhibition in the best possible sense.  It brings together an  eclectic and visually exuberant ensemble of international artists whose work addresses issues as varied as identity, environmentalism, PTSD, and even the Avian Flue (Rachel Moore’s rendering of surgical masks tarnished by their wearer’s breath has certainly accrued an uncanny  resonance and timeliness over the past several weeks).  The eclectic nature of this exhibit perhaps might initially seem to lack a specific point of focus, but that can easily be forgiven; after all, it’s ultimately the varied potential (and indeed the innate beauty) of glass that remains the whole point of the show in the first place.

Glass, A New State of Matter is on view at the GRAM until April 26.

 

 

Useful and Beautiful @ Flint Institute of Art

Installation image, Two bowls, and silver setting

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” urged the great designer and social reformer William Morris to an audience in 1880.  Hardly just making a quip about interior design, Morris was being a counter-cultural thorn in the side of the Victorian capitalist and industrial establishment, whose factories churned out mass-produced artless products, and whose workers were accorded little more status than that of the machine.  Morris argued that there was a better way, and even established a workshop that taught people skilled trades in the applied arts, in which workers could harness their creative agencies while earning living wages and producing objects of quality and beauty.  This launched the Arts and Crafts Movement, the reverberations of which were felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul de Lamerie, English, 1688–1751. “George II Oval Cake Basket,” 1742. Silver. 14 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards through the Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust, 1984.23

Not all the works that comprise the show Useful and Beautiful on view at the Flint Institute of Art are the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement (though some, like those produced by Liberty & Co. or  the architectural studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, absolutely were), but they all stand in the tradition of skilled artisan craft that seamlessly integrated functionality with exquisite design.  Collectively, this diverse ensemble of work voice a triumphant rebuttal to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all art is quite useless.”

The chronological and geographical scope of this smallish exhibition is impressively broad.  Spanning a 500-year breadth, the show presents examples of decorative arts ranging from a lavishly decorated 17th century wheellock pistol to stained glass by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A sizeable number of these works hail from non-western cultures (Asian and American Indian, specifically) which never drew a line between the fine and applied arts, as did the Western/European world.  Everything on view comes from the FIA’s permanent collection, and the FIA really is the perfect venue for this exhibit: in addition to a muscular collection of traditional “fine art,” the museum now boasts a newly opened wing that displays a world-class collection of ceramic and glass art, much of which fudges the boundary between the beautiful and the functional.

Artist Unknown, German. Fullstock High Art Wheelock Pistol, ca. 1680. Wood, steel, ivory, and mother of pearl. 16 7/16 x 4 13/16 x 1 7/8 inches. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George H. Greidinger, 1976.

These artifacts are diverse and sometimes surprising.  A pair of engraved golden cigarette cases from Japan possesses the lavish attention to detail that we might expect instead from devotional artifacts belonging to a Constantinian-era emperor, or perhaps something unearthed from a Viking burial.  The same could certainly be said of a Celtic-inspired bowl designed by Alfred Knox for Liberty & Co. Usually the largeness of a work of art seems to grab people’s attention, but in the case of six finely-crafted tiny salt and pepper dispensers (imagine a set of tiny witch’s cauldrons, but made of silver and about the size of a thimble, replete with a tiny serving spoons), it’s precisely the smallness of this set that makes it such a tour-de-force of applied design.  A tiny pair of Sioux children’s moccasins, adorned with meticulous beadwork, is similarly arresting for their petite size.  Perhaps the most unexpected objects in the show are the set of streamline 1930s-era Art-Deco silver cutlery, custom-made exclusively for American Airlines, and intended to stress the point that travelling by airplane was the fabulous and luxurious modern way to travel (contemplate this as you attempt to pry apart your next airline meal with a semi-functional plastic spork).

Liberty & Co., British, founded London, 1875. Bowl, ca. 1900. 3 1/2 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches. Gift of Janis and William Wetsman, 2016.

Many works on view, beautiful as they are, were produced by anonymous artisans who likely never imagined their craft would one day appear in an art museum—decorative Pueblo pottery, for example, or a pewter flagon from Germany.  Nevertheless, this show does boast a selection of art-world heavyweights.  There’s a decorative ceramic bowl created in collaboration with the famed American painter Andrew Wyeth.  Viewers will also see one of the stained-glass windows designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a home at Midway Gardens in Chicago; heavily inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright famously custom-designed every component of a building, including light fixtures, furniture, silverware, and windows.

Artist Unknown, German. Flagon, n.d. Pewter. 12 9/16 x 4 5/16 x 6 ¼ inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Davis, 1972.

This exhibition rhetorically asks if there really is a meaningful distinction between the fine and decorative arts, and playfully blurs the boundary between these two categories.  It’s a question perhaps best posed by a bronze doorknocker crafted by Renaissance sculptor Tiziano Aspetti, which features a Greco-Roman inspired Venus standing in elegant contrapposto, directly quoting the famed Aphrodite of Knidos, one the most copied sculpture of classical antiquity.  At this level, distinctions between the fine and applied arts become, in the final analysis, a bit petty.

Collectively, these works serve to break down some unnecessary distinctions we’ve created to categorize the arts, but there’s an understated social element to this exhibit as well.  This show wistfully looks backward to a time before the Walmartification of culture, which invariably takes material culture down toward the absolute lowest threshold of quality and craft that people will settle for.  In its quiet way, this show suggests that technological advancement is not necessarily always progress forward, and that perhaps we shouldn’t always be so quick to sacrifice beauty for the sake of efficiency.

Useful and Beautiful exhibition at the  Flint Institute of Art through July 26, 2020

 

Sixty Seconds in Kusama’s Infinity @ Toledo Museum of Art

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

 

Stepping into Yayoi Kusama’s installation Fireflies on the Water at the Toledo Museum of Art is a dreamlike experience; it comes as little surprise to learn that this other-worldly sculptural environment was inspired by a childhood dream in which the artist saw a myriad of fireflies over a river on a summer night.  To experience Fireflies, visitors individually enter a darkened room in which every surface (including the floor and ceiling) reflects into infinity the tranquilly pulsating shimmers emitted by 150 tiny electric lights suspended at different heights.   The visual and sensory effect is one of floating in infinite space; the impulse is to linger, just as you might under a starry night sky, but once your allocated 60 seconds inside this space are over, you’re kindly asked to leave so the next guest can enter, and the experience lives on only as a fleeting memory.

The tranquil beauty of Fireflies belies the tenacious, fiery spirit that defined much of Kusama’s artistic career in Postwar Abstraction, which spans well over half a century.  Her parents ardently discouraged her from becoming an artist; nevertheless, while in her twenties Kusama left Japan and, in 1958, entrenched herself in New York City, the newly established capital of the art-world.  Her friends and acquaintances included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, and the surrealist Joseph Cornell.  Her early works anticipated (and very possibly even directly inspired) both the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and the famously repetitive screen-prints of Andy Warhol.  During the Vietnam War, she even organized provocative nude anti-war protests in public spaces like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Museum of Modern Art.  Her critical reputation at one time surpassed even Warhol’s, in part because of her theatrical Happenings, and may have continued to do so had she not returned to Japan in 1973, and, in the West at least, faded into comparative obscurity.

No. Green No. 1. Oil on canvas, 70 x 49.5 in (177.8 x 124.8 cm).  Baltimore Museum of Art, The Edith Ferry Hooper Bequest Fund, BMA 1996.11

America re-discovered Kusama around the turn of the Millennium, precisely when she began re-inventing the Infinity Rooms for which she’s now most associated with.  They originate with her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s, for which Kusama would apply a thickly impastoed net of paint onto a dark canvass, allowing the ground of the canvass to show through in the negative space as a seemingly infinite network of dots.  Breaking away from the finite confines of the canvass, she began experimenting with enclosed, mirrored environments in which whimsically colored dots and vegetal, gourd-like forms really did seem to repeat into eternal space.

Fireflies on the Water was the first in the next generation of Infinity Rooms, which, rather than playfully burst with full-intensity vibrant colors, evoke the subdued quiet stillness of a starry night.  Visitors to Fireflies stand on a small platform surrounded by water, which ripples just enough to allow the reflected lights to shimmer, though almost imperceptibly.  The lights aren’t a uniform yellow, as a firefly’s signal might be, but range from subtle yellows, reds, and blues, much like the stars.   The lights seem to extend infinitely in 360 degrees (including vertically), so the illusion is that you’re standing on a platform hovering infinitely high in indeterminate space—don’t look down…it’s quite disorienting.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

It’s easy to understand the current widespread appeal of Kusama’s works; though her mirrored spaces long predate the Smartphone, they now resonate perfectly with the culture of the Instagram selfie.  Earlier this fall, the New York Times advised readers to expect a two hour wait to experience her infinity room at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.  (It should be noted that the TMA has a timed-ticket system, and viewers won’t wait in line more than fifteen minutes.) In the hands on another artist, such an application of mirrors might conceivably be reduced to a funhouse gimmick.  But Kusama’s Fireflies is undeniably transcendent, applying the illusion of infinity a way to guide us toward thinking about eternity (and perhaps by extension, mortality), and viewers to the Toledo Museum of Art will find it well worth the fifteen minute wait to experience their own sixty seconds in Kusama’s Infinity.

Fireflies on the Water is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through April 26, 2020