By Maggie Duffy
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Art lovers and social media influencers have the chance to get immersed in one of internationally-acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama’s famous Infinity Rooms.
Incredibly Instagram-able, “Yayoi Kusama: Love is Calling” opens Friday at the Tampa Museum of Art. The mirrored room is filled with tentacle-like inflatable, soft sculptures arising from the floor and dangling from the ceiling. Adorned with the Japanese artist’s favorite motif, polka dots, the sculptures pulse with a rainbow of cheerful colors, from neon pinks and greens to soft blues and pale yellows. It creates an illusion of infinite space, one where it’s impossible to take a bad photo. Audio of Kusama reciting a poem she wrote in Japanese fills the room, an additional layer to her world.
The installation is owned by the Vinik Family Foundation, whose founders Jeff and Penny Vinik have brought other experiential art installations to Tampa. In summer 2016, they brought the Beach Tampa, which filled Amalie Arena with translucent plastic balls. In 2017, they brought the Art of the Brick, an exhibit of Lego sculptures from artist Nathan Sawaya. They purchased Love is Calling after viewing it at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2016.
“One of the great things about a lot of the art that Penny and I like, the Art of the Brick and Beach and now Love is Calling, is they are great for different age groups,” Jeff Vinik said. “Kids can enjoy them, adults can enjoy them and they all get different meanings out of it.”
Penny Vinik was drawn to the deeper meaning of Love is Calling, and the poem, Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears, which explores themes of love and mortality. Jeff Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and developer of Water Street Tampa, responded to the piece’s whimsical aesthetic.
Kusama is an 89-year-old contemporary artist living in her native Japan. She came to the United States in 1958 and was successful, establishing herself in the New York art scene with her Infinity Net paintings featuring dizzyingly repetitive dotted patterns.
To Kusama, the dot is much more than just a motif. A quote on a wall outside the exhibition explains her viewpoint:
“Dots are symbols of the world, the cosmos. The earth is a dot, the moon, the sun, the stars are all made up of dots. You and me, we are dots.”
In 1961, she created her first soft sculpture. By 1965, the first Infinity Room, Phalli’s Field, was born. She has created more than 20 rooms, some filled with soft sculptures, others using lights and water. She created Love is Calling in 2013.
Elusive and eccentric, Kusama cuts a striking figure, sporting a blunt red bob and dressing in the same polka-dotted patterns found in her work. She returned to Japan in 1973 without the intention of staying, but remained due to mental health issues. She voluntarily resides in an institution, but keeps a studio across the street where she works every day.
Last year, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. held a 50-year retrospective exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” which included six of her rooms. The exhibition, which now travels to other museums around the country, has broken attendance records. Social media has catapulted Kusama back into the public eye. In 2017, the Yayoi Kusama museum opened in Tokyo.
Predicting long lines, tickets are timed. Museum officials suggest buying them in advance. Up to 10 people may enter the room at a time, but may only stay for 2 minutes. While photos are strongly encouraged, be sure the flash is off, and though it’s tempting, don’t touch the sculptures.
“Her work is so popular but it’s hard for people to get to see them, so it meant a lot to us that we could have one here,” said Penny Vinik. “We get immense joy from seeing the community enjoy what we bring.”
If You Go
“Yayoi Kusama: Love is Calling” opens Friday and remains on display through Feb. 14 at the Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W Gasparilla Plaza. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays and Fourth Fridays. Admission is $15; $7.50 seniors, groups; $5 students; university, college and higher education students with valid IDs and children 6 and younger free. Tickets for the exhibition are timed and are best purchased in advance. tampamuseum.org/kusama-faq.