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9 Best Works to See at the 2021 Botanical Garden Kusama Exhibit

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

The most talked-about art exhibit of the spring season in New York this year isn’t happening at the Met. Or the Whitney. Or the MoMA. Nope, you’ll  have to head north to take part in the “it” exhibition of the season. KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature has arrived at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx. And it’s a must-see. Here are our best photos and favorite works of art from the 2021 Yayoi Kusama exhibit at New York Botanical Garden, a perfect outdoor sculpture installation to catch while you can.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature 2021 opens at the New York Botanical Garden

Every few years the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) stages an important outdoor art exhibit that draws crowds of people that would not normally have the Garden on their radar screens. In 2017 it was site-specific Chihuly glass sculptures. Now, it’s contemporary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in the spotlight.

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KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature is not a departure from the nonagenarian artist’s practice. While she has become well-known in recent years for her “Infinity Rooms” and their takeover of social media platforms the world over, the natural world has always been central to her work.

The New York Botanical Garden April 2021. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

The NYBG notes that Yayoi Kusama has had a “lifelong fascination with the natural world, beginning with her childhood spent in the greenhouses and fields of her family’s seed nursery” in Matsumoto, Japan. The colors, patterns, and life cycles of plants and flowers are here, the natural juxtaposed with the constructed.

2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

Add to that the joys of being back in the Garden with the sun, spring breezes, cherry blossoms, daffodils and flowering magnolia trees. And you’re talking spring luxury of the highest order.

2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

9 Best Works to See at the 2021 Botanical Garden Kusama Exhibit

Here are some of our favorite experiences and highlights of the installation. Spoiler alert: if you want to experience the exhibit with no prior knowledge, stop reading now. Go see it, and then come back and let us know if you felt it the same way we did.

1. Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002).

If you enter the Garden from the Metro North train station side, the first sign of Kusama’s work you’ll see celebrates the soaring mature deciduous trees of the Garden. Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002) is exactly what it sounds like: a series of majestic old-growth trees – several of them maples – with their lower branches and trunks wrapped in red and white polka dots.

Yayoi Kusama’s Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

The Garden’s notes say that “since her earliest abstract works created in the 1950s,” the artist has been drawn to polka dots. Kusama considers polka dots to be “complex, boundless entities on the verge of explosion – a source of energy, like the sun.” The artist herself says “our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

Yayoi Kusama’s Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees (2002). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

2. Flower Obsession (2017/2021) obliteration greenhouse.

Once you’re past the polka dot forest, within a few steps, a modest white tent that looks like a greenhouse comes into view. This is Kusama’s Flower Obsession (2017/2021). It’s one in a series of Obliteration Rooms cleverly created by Kusama so that that viewers are invited to become directly engaged in the artist’s practice. To become her co-creators.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden

Yayoi Kusama Flower Obsession (2017/2021). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

Inside, there are all manner of household items and traditional vignettes: a dining table, a bookcase, a clothes closet. A wheelbarrow. House plants. Lamps. And more.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

The idea is that every visitor leaves either a flower sticker or a silk flower in a location of their choosing. There are poppies, gerbera daisies and other vibrant pink blooms. By the time the exhibit ends in late October, the little structure will literally be obliterated by the blooms. The work was inspired by the artist’s hallucination as a child of flowers covering every surface on view. We cannot wait to see it again in June, and again in October. 

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden

Yayoi Kusama Flower Obsession (2017/2021). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

But even seeing it in early April made us kind of giddy with happiness. After more than a year of living in isolation, searching for ways to connect or stay connected, there is something so joyful about the idea that as a community, visitors will transform a space. That they will literally make it bloom.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

We left our little silk poppy on the bookcase on top of a stack of gardening books – where else would you expect, dear reader?

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3. I Want to Fly to the Universe (2020).

If you approach it from the direction we did, the first view you’ll have of “I Want to Fly to the Universe” is a purple-blue polka dot twist that looks like a sea creature – probably an octopus. Draw closer, though, and as with most things Kusama, there is more than initially meets the eye.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

Other the other side is a face, and now the sculpture looks like a flower, or a child’s rendering of the sun. And yet the expression is in no way childlike. It’s a look of surprise, or even distress. Is it waving a greeting? Or waving for help? Your call, dear reader.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

4. My Soul Blooms Forever (2019).

In the magnificent domed Palm Court inside the Enid Haupt Conservatory, the abundant tropical trees and plants are joined by five whimsical flowers in the reflecting pool.

My Soul Blooms Forever (2019). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

When you look at them from the right angle, they appear to be dancing – with each other, and also with the palms.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden.

My Soul Blooms Forever (2019). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

Nearby, the Garden has installed a Kusama-Inspired Flower Garden that will change with the seasons. It takes as its inspiration the artist’s painting Alone, Buried in a Flower Garden (2014). The painting is from her My Eternal Soul series. The plantings are a seasonal homage to the color, pattern and texture of the work.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

5. Starry Pumpkin (2015).

Inside a bespoke garden meant to evoke a meadow, we find a wonderful work that is meant to evoke the magic of the first time Yayoi Kusama ever saw a pumpkin.

best photos and favorite works at the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden

best photos and favorite works at the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden

Surrounded by grasses and wildflowers, in a grove of willows and shrubs, this is the pumpkin in its most idealized incarnation. The glittering surface will remind romantics of the pumpkin-cum-carriage in Cinderella. The humble gourd as a vessel of dreams, a container of mysteries, and an emitter of energy. In the fall, the work will be surrounded by Japanese chrysanthemums.

The artist shares: “I parted a row of zinnias and reached in to pluck the pumpkin from its vine. It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner.”

6. Hymn of Life – Tulips (2007).

Regular readers of Dandelion Chandelier will know of our deep devotion to the lily pond behind the Enid Haupt Conservatory. On this visit, though, it was the tulips that took the starring role.

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

From certain angles, these tulips look like water birds about to take flight. Their stems twist like aquatic snakes. And all around, the real tulips nod and bow in the breeze.

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

Kusama once said: “Flowers are filled with all kinds of forms and colors.” If you had any doubt about that, the proof is here.

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

7. Dancing Pumpkin (2020).

Who knew that a pumpkin could bust a move? Kusama often renders plants with the characteristics of animals. And sometimes even humans. And so a showcase work outside the Haupt Conservatory is this epic and almost animated sculpture of a pumpkin. With legs.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

In this case, the gourd looks like an arachnid. Or an octopus. Balancing on three of its eleven legs, it appears to be ready to scuttle away. Or perhaps to devour us.

Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

8. Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart (2020).

The Infinity Mirrored Room is a hallmark of any Kusama exhibit. We have friends who have experienced over a dozen of them already, and they cannot wait for more.

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

So you may be disappointed to hear that this particular Infinity Room is not yet open. Daggone coronavirus! The authorities are insisting that more time pass before the public is admitted.

Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart (2020). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

But here’s the thing: this is a gorgeous, almost mystical structure in its own right, given where it is placed in the Garden. We had nearly 30 minutes of sheer amusement and fun circling it, and watching others do the same.

best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

On a gorgeous spring day, who wouldn’t want a reflection of the sky and sun mirrored back to them?

And yeah, you kind of have to take a mirror selfie. You know, before the crowds arrive.

Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart (2020). Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

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9. Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity (2017).

We’ve saved the most profound and meaningful of the exhibits for last. And we have no photos, because curator Mika Yoshitake wisely decided to forbid photography in this particular instance.

In a poorly-marked little building that one could easily overlook, you’ll find Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity (2017). For us, this work made the entire visit worthwhile.

best photos and favorite works at the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden

Our best photos and favorite works at the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

the must-see work from Kusama: Cosmic Nature

Her detractors may dismiss Kusama as childishly optimistic. They may classify her work as “made for social media.” Meaning that it’s deeply unserious.

Well, we beg to differ. It could just be us. But this work made us cry. Like all great art, it touched a place in our hearts that we didn’t even know was there. And broke it open.

The installation is small, simple and profound. First there is total darkness. Then two small yellow and black polka-dotted pumpkins light up in the gloom. And then the light spreads. Until what appears to be a field of countless pumpkins – large, small, short, tall – are illuminated.

The mirror effect means that whether you look up or down (you should do both), you’ll see pumpkins lit from within, cascading away into infinity. As if a dark world has become suffused with light, just because two small pumpkins started something that turned out to be so illuminating.

It made us think of the final lines of Amanda Gorman’s poem for the Inauguration 2021.The new dawn blooms as we free it,/For there is always light,/If only we’re brave enough to see it,/If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Then abruptly, the light goes out. And we stand in inky darkness.
Then two little pumpkins shine their light. And the cycle begins again.

What to make of this? The work goes on – it must go on. Where there is darkness, someone with courage has to bring the light.

There’s a great deal of darkness in the world right now. It’s up to us to choose to shine.

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The combination of joy, sadness, grief and hope speaks so eloquently to the current moment that it is astounding that the artist herself has not experienced the dramatic lifestyle changes that most of us lived through during the coronavirus pandemic. Kusama, 92, has lived voluntarily in a Japanese mental hospital for over 40 years. Six days a week, she works in a studio next to the hospital.

Her work speaks to us now, and also to those who will see it decades from now who want to understand this exact moment in our collective lives. This is the art we need right now. We hope you’ll catch it while you can.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature – what to Know before you go

On the day of our visit, several people were distressed and disappointed to learn that they had purchased an admissions ticket that only allowed them to view the outside portions of this installation, and not the inside ones.

Buy carefully: to see both the indoor and outdoor installations (and you definitely will want to see both), be sure to select a KUSAMA Garden & Gallery Pass ticket. “Gallery Pass” is the key phrase here. The website underemphasizes this and you don’t want to be disappointed upon arrival.

Our best photos and favorite works of art from a visit to the new 2021 Yayoi Kusama sculpture exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. Photo Credit: Dandelion Chandelier.

As of this posting, tickets are being released in phases through June 30, 2021. Later in the spring, there will be more information about tickets for the summer and early fall. The Infinity Room is expected to be operational later in the spring, as long as coronavirus protocols can be satisfied – there will be separate tickets required for that.

Wear good walking shoes, as there’s a fair amount of ground to cover. And since most of the works are outdoors, dress appropriately for the weather. You’ll be outside a lot, rain or shine.

KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature runs through Sunday, October 31, 2021.

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