Mental illness is a struggle for many individuals and families. At the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), we don’t overlook the difficult aspects of these conditions. At the same time, we also celebrate the uniqueness and gifts of people with mental health conditions, who have made and continue to make important contributions to our communities.
It was my privilege to rcently visit the most thought-provoking art exhibit I have ever seen. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, age 88, is one of the greatest living artists in the world today and she lives voluntarily in a psychiatric hospital in Japan with her studio nearby. Since childhood, she has experienced hallucinations and her art has evolved out of her experiences. Her art often consists of polka dots, which calmed noises in her head. Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” has been on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where it will remain through mid-May---just long enough to coincide with the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month. From there, it will move to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto and Cleveland.
The exhibit has been nothing short of a blockbuster with people trying desperately to get tickets online and standing in line for hours. During my visit, it took more than two hours to get through the exhibit with most of the time spent waiting to get into one of the rooms with mirrors. The popularity and conversation around Kusama’s work is promoting a special kind of awareness—in which people learn not about clinical conditions, but rather, how a person with mental illness views the world. This is a gift she gives to all who enter the special worlds she creates.
Each room has a white, plain exterior and looks very small. When you enter the room, what you see, however, is not small at all. In fact, the way Kusama positions mirrors and objects leads to an amazing immersion in light that seems to go on forever– infinity. She shows how something can look boring, plain and uninviting on the outside, while being expansive, beautiful and unique on the inside. You also see Kusama's paintings and sculpture in the exhibit, . But she used modern lights and mirrors to create something that was clearly consistent with her past work, but was still unique, fresh, relevant to the times and impactful in a whole new way.
Kusama’s work provides a valuable lesson to us all: We should all be so fortunate to take our cause and our work and build on what has previously been done while transforming it into something even more life-changing.
A version of this article appeared in the NAMI Blog on April 10.