ART & CULTURE

Dancing Pumpkin, 2020, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

Polka Dots at New York Botanical Garden
Let us take you inside the natural world seen through the eyes of Yayoi Kusama, the artist who sees hallucinations of polka-dotted visions, and to the fantastic garden that she has built. Welcome to < KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature >, her solo exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.
Yayoi Kusama can be called many things: a performance artist, a novelist, an actress, a fashion designer and an art dealer. But we’re perhaps most familiar with Kusama being an avant-garde artist (at once a sculptor, a painter and an installation artist) defined by polka dot patterns of varying sizes. While living in New York from 1957 to 1973, Kusama befriended such contemporary artists as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd and Yoko Ono, laying foundation of a career in avant-garde art. Kusama has been featured at Venice Biennale, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, among other major art institutions. With her collaborations with a wide range of fashion and design brands, Kusama evolved into a popular artist.
Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010 © YAYOI KUSAMA

Kusama with Pumpkin, 2010 © YAYOI KUSAMA

Her solo exhibition will run exclusively at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx from April 10 to Oct. 31. Over 1 million m² of landscape will be covered in colorful polka dots and giant floral sculptures. It creates a humorous or even a bizarre ambience, though those pieces are based on Kusama’s experience of finding solace in flowers during her childhood marred by war and political unrest. Perhaps that explains how, when you walk among Kusama’s colorful installations in all sorts of shapes and forms, it will awaken the child inside you. The exhibition had been scheduled to open last year but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, < KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature > should serve as a much-needed source of positive vibes during these troubled times.
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New York Botanical Garden

New York Botanical Garden is that rare place in the Big Apple that retains some of the primitive forms of nature. It’s a bit away from Manhattan but has long been a popular venue for its special seasonal events (cherry blossom festivals in springs and pumpkin fests in autumns) and nature-theme exhibitions by such modern art greats as Georgia O’Keeffe and Dale Chihuly. This exhibition features installations at outdoor garden and indoor spaces, and will unveil many floral and plant drawings and archiving works for the first time.
I Want to Fly to the Universe, 2020, The New York Botanical Garden, Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

I Want to Fly to the Universe, 2020, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

In the Garden
1. Seasonal Wonders 
A huge tulip has blossomed, towering over a green garden. Nameless plants that you had to bend down just to see now stand taller than you in their colorful reverie. What makes Kusama’s installations at the NYBG’s outdoor garden is that, over the course of the exhibition, horticulturists working there will set up different plants each season. Inside and outside Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a New York City landmark, Kusama’s installations will be accompanied by tulips and irises in spring, dahlias and sweetpeas in summer and pumpkins and chrysanthemums in fall. ‘Hymn of Life: Tulips’ (2007), a large fiberglass tulip installation, and the brand new ‘I Want to Fly to the Universe’ (2020) will be featured, and don’t miss ‘Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees’ (2002/2021) across the grounds. The natural beauty of the NYBG and colorful polka dots create a witty visual harmony.
Hymn of Life – Tulips, 2007, Courtesy of the City of Beverly Hills

Hymn of Life – Tulips, 2007. Courtesy of the City of Beverly Hills

Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2002/2021, The New York Botanical Garden, Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees, 2002/2021, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

2. Love for Pumpkins
Kusama’s infatuation with pumpkins dates back to her childhood. While her parents were busy doing seed wholesale work in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama spent her time inside a greenhouse and at a farm, and gradually grew fascinated with flowers and pumpkins. Her hallucinations of natural life would later become a crucial part of her art career. At Conservatory Lawn, you’ll be greeted by the 5-meter tall monumental sculpture called ‘Dancing Pumpkin’ (2020). The giant, yellow pumpkin with black polka dots is Kusama’s homage to nature from her early years and also her alter ego.
Narcissus Garden, 1966/2021, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

Narcissus Garden, 1966/2021, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

3. Fantastic Mirror Ball and Infinity Mirrored Room
Mirrors are also a major part of Kusama’s career. ‘Narcissus Garden’ (1966/2021), consisting of 1,400 stainless mirrored globes, each about 30 centimeters in diameter, will float on the water feature at Native Plant Garden, moved by wind, and their reflections of light and their surrounding landscape create almost an dream-like atmosphere. The cube-shaped ‘Infinity Mirrored Room-Illusion Inside the Heart’ (2017) has a polished surface that reflects light poking through tiny holes. Once inside, you’ll feel like you’re floating in space. It would normally cost $10 per entry, though only the exterior will be on view until summer due to COVID-19.
 
Kusama in Flower Obsession, Photo by Yuzuke Miyazake © YAYOI KUSAMA 2021.

Kusama in Flower Obsession. Photo by Yuzuke Miyazake © YAYOI KUSAMA 2021.

“A polka dot has the form of the moon, which is calm, round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement and they are a way to infinity.”
Yayoi Kusama
In the Galleries
1. Covered in Floral Patterns 
After seeing a tablecloth with floral patterns at her home as a child, Kusama saw hallucinations of polka dot afterimages covering her body and her room. She channeled her obsession into art, which led to her career-defining polka dot patterns. The interactive ‘Flower Obsession’ (2017/2020) shows us the inside through her eyes. Visitors will receive coral-colored stickers, and they may apply them to furniture and mirrored walls, as they please. Over the course of the exhibition, the greenhouse will be covered in stickers, and Kusama offers her symbolic expression of the concepts of obliteration, infinity and eternity.
Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity, 2017, Collection of the artist.

Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity, 2017, Collection of the artist.

2. Infinity of Pumpkins
‘Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity’ (2017) is a part of Kusama’s Mirrored Environments series, comprising pumpkins set up inside a mirrored room. A glass cub reflects an infinity of polka dots on pumpkins. By repeating the patterns of tiny cells, the basic element of life, Kusama shows how all forms of life are genetically connected with one another.
KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature, The New York Botanical Garden, 2021. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature, The New York Botanical Garden, 2021. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden, 2014, Collection of the artist.

Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden, 2014, Collection of the artist.

I Want to go to the Universe, Collection of the artist.

I Want to go to the Universe, Collection of the artist.

3. Early Works That Channel Pain into Love of Nature
Inside the galleries, you will also get a closer look at drawings and laboratory specimens that Kusama has been studying since she was a little girl. She demonstrates how small patterns in nature can create such unique and beautiful forms of life. A sketchbook from 1945, when Kusama was 16, shows some 50 drawings by the young aspiring artist capturing the bloom cycle of tree peonies. Other features include a number of botanical drawings and biomorphic collages that helped Kusama connect with nature, and paintings inspired by cells.
My Soul Blooms Forever, 2019, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

My Soul Blooms Forever, 2019, The New York Botanical Garden. Photo by Robert Benson Photography.

4. Plants Leading to Another Piece of Art
Under the newly-restored dome of the Palms of the World Gallery stands the stainless steel installation called ‘My Soul Blooms Forever’ (2019). The pink-and-gold mosaic ‘Starry Pumpkin’ (2015) is featured in a space completed with the help of NYBG horticulturists. Seasonal plants and foliage to harmonize with Kusama’s pink polka dots will be brought in this summer. The entire space will turn into a giant piece of artwork.
 

KUSAMA: COSMIC NATURE © NYBG

Visiting New York Botanical Garden
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you must book your visit in advance. At Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street in Manhattan, take the Metro-North Harlem local line to Botanical Garden Station, connected to the NYBG’s entrance. It’s about a 30-minute trip.
Address 2900 Southern Blvd., The Bronx, NY
Hours 10:00~18:00, Tuesday to Sunday
Admission Adults $35 Children (2~12), $15
Website www.nybg.org
 
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Address 455 Madison Avenue at 50th St., New York
Phone +1-800-804-7035
Website www.lottenypalace.com
 
May 2021 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Writer:Jinhee Lee
Cooperation: New York Botanical Garden

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