It is difficult to escape from reality. When reading a book or watching a film, you might just start to believe that you’re not in Durham. But there is always something that brings you back – the sheen of fingerprints on your MacBook; the swishing of flares – tiny distractions and incongruities. In a gallery, a painting always has a boundary and is contained as something to be observed. You can only experience the work of art from a safe distance demarcated by alarm bells and cordons.
Despite its transparency, that literal space between yourself and the work cushions the experience. Barnett Newman tried to resolve this by telling people to stand only a ‘short distance’ from his paintings. Undoubtedly, a practical and cheap solution, but perhaps not the most effective. Immersive artworks are more deliberate in their techniques.
Currently on display at the Tate Modern in London are two ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’. To step into one is to approach the reality of Yayoi Kusama – a self-admitted resident of a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo. By lining the surfaces of a small space with mirrors, her reality finds you floating through a dark, ethereal cosmos. The image of yourself suspended among points of light multiplies in all directions, layering over itself until it is obliterated.
These works target a very basic assumption. In everyday life, the world appears to us as defined objects. You’ve got your desk, your walls, your ground. You look at all these things and you know that you, yourself, are not a desk nor a wall nor the ground and that a desk is not a wall nor is the ground a desk. You are, as always, relieved to have these existential comforts. However, if these things vanish and you lose these hard definitions, you are in for some philosophical trouble. It is this sensation that Kusama has obsessively tried to understand and communicate through her work.
Since her childhood, she has experienced hallucinatory visions of spots, swarming and disintegrating the boundaries of the objects around her. As you stand in the ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’, you are to share in this feeling. Once the hard definitions of your surroundings vanish, your individual bodily awareness finds itself at odds. You work from the obliteration of your surroundings to yourself, and finally, you arrive at Kusama’s self-obliteration. It sounds fairly ominous, but Kusama is searching for a reassuring sense of oneness.
It is this reflection of your presence within the work that marks it as distinctly immersive. Unlike traditional visual art, immersive art extends beyond the material that you observe. The work becomes the environment in which you find yourself and, as a result, that cushioning of distance dissipates – it belongs to the artwork. You have stepped into the painting, so to speak.
The ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ are breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the art. While it’s true that there are still things to look at – the shining lights; your smiling reflections; the dark void – what you are observing is yourself as present. It is in locating yourself within the work, that you are transposed from the safety of the gallery space.
Whether this is enough to attain self-obliteration all turns on these two questions: how much are we defined by the realities in which we find ourselves and can we ever change them? Immersive art succeeds in providing an answer. If the work can lay claim to the space that you occupy, like immersive art suggests, then surely your intangible environment – your reality – has been changed. And now having tumbled you through these philosophical hoops, Kusama finally asks you whether your sense of self has been redefined. Have you been transported? Is it the case that you find yourself unwoven by an infinite absence of comforting desks and walls?
Image: Kusama’s Infinity Room by Paul Hanaoka via unsplash