New Canaan Narcissus
Published 12:00 am, Thursday, April 21, 2016
NEW CANAAN — On a warm afternoon not long before the official opening of Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Philip Johnson Glass House, curator Irene Shum was up to her knees in water, disassembling the exhibition with a team of two in order to get an exact count of the silver balls that comprise the installation.
Trudging through the shallows of the small manmade pond that sits down a steep trail below Johnson’s fabled former weekend retreat, Shum — jovial despite pooling water at the bottom of her galoshes, the prevalence of mud on her person and mosquitoes swarming — grabbed at whatever reflective orbs were within reach. She tossed some underhand onto the grass and herded others into pockets of the pond that were cordoned off by ropes.
“I didn’t realize that I’d have to take the balls out to count. I thought we could contain them, which is why we had the ropes, but at a certain point they just sort of corral,” Shum said, out of breath, referring to clusters of out-of-reach spheres toward the center of the pond.
Fully assembled, this iteration of Narcissus Garden is composed of 1,300 mirrored balls — a number specified by Kusama after receiving measurements and images of the pond — placed in the water, where they will be allowed to float freely for the duration of the exhibition, which opens May 1 and runs through Nov. 30.
Kusama — now 89 and living in the Tokyo psychiatric hospital to which she retreated in the 1970s — is known for the avant-garde paintings, sculpture and installations that have made her an art world icon. She ascended to fame in Hippie-era 1960s New York by hosting nude happenings in areas of high visibility, such as Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. Her work often incorporated mirrors, and her Infinity Nets — vast hypnotic networks of colored dots — were inspired by the hallucinations that Kusama has experienced since childhood. One such net will cover the transparent exterior of the Glass House for three weeks in September.
Since its initial installation at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966 — a show which Kusama crashed, setting up her display on the Italian Pavilion lawn and selling the pieces individually for $2, much to the displeasure of the Biennale staff — Narcissus Garden has been recreated at various locations, on land and in water, though usually with Kusama present to direct the proceedings.
Because of Kusama’s age, Shum and her team had to develop a strategy that permitted the artist to work remotely.
“Usually the way we work with contemporary artists, we either invite them to the site or we go to meet them,” Shum said. “But she doesn’t travel anymore, so we didn’t meet her. It was actually kind of beautiful, it was like a leap of faith on her part to sort of trust us.”
Pre-installation, Kusama scrutinized a map of the grounds and began to conceptualize the site with a team consisting of two of the artist’s assistants, staff from the American gallery that represents Kusama, and Shum herself. Meanwhile, Shum had her own convictions as to where the art work should be situated.
After the Glass House pond was dredged two years ago, the first phase in an effort to revitalize the pavilion that sits on the water’s southern edge, Shum said she wanted to celebrate by having a nautical exhibition. Remembering a version of Narcissus Garden she had seen in the Central Park Boat Pond more than a decade before, Shum knew what she hoped to see done in New Canaan.
Kusama responded enthusiastically to Shum’s suggestion that the artist situate her newest Narcissus Garden in the pond at the Glass House.
Once the location was settled, the pieces were shipped by boat across the Pacific, transported by freight train cross-country to New York City, where they were unloaded and then reloaded into a truck bound for Connecticut. Kusama’s assistants, who flew in from Tokyo, were on hand to assist Glass House personnel in the installation process.
At intervals, photographs of their progress were sent off to Japan for Kusama’s approval. The entire job took two days to complete.
And the following day it all had to be done over again - to be certain that every one of the silver balls would be visible when the installation opens for public view.
Just a few hours after the counting process began, the number was confirmed to be in accordance with Kusama’s wishes. The completed re-installation was left shimmering in the late-day sun.
The silver balls moved about the water as one, with the exception of a few rebellious orbs that, driven by gusts of wind, floated independently — an enthralling spectacle.
Drawn to the cumulative power of many identical but distinct parts, the viewer moves closer and closer to the mirrored spheres until — like the youth in the Greek myth for which the Narcissus Garden is aptly named — he is transfixed by his own reflection.