Reflections of the Anthropocene in Immersive Art | Emma Kwok
In June of 2019, my sister was preparing to graduate from university in Los Angeles, California. During her last days in the city, she brought me and the rest of our family to different sites she had always intended to visit, but had not yet seen. Among these attractions was Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013). Housed at The Broad, a modern art museum, the installation had appeared frequently, for years, on our Instagram feeds in pictures of our friends encompassed by walls of mirrors. We were finally going to participate in the trend. Months later, at my own university, I learned about panoramas of the late-eighteenth century: paintings made to surround viewers in an unbroken, 360-degree image. While studying panoramas’ design and audience engagement, I was reminded again and again of Kusama’s infinity room—itself an immersive artwork which contains audiences in an endless field of reflections. The two are so analogous that infinity rooms could be considered modern panoramas, even to the extent that they evoke the conflicting senses of limitless agency and certain imprisonment characteristic of the Anthropocene.
According to The Broad’s biography on Kusama, “[from] an early age,” the artist “was prone to hallucinations due to mental illness” of a “world distorted and enhanced by colors and shapes” (“Yayoi Kusama”). Via the combination of materials such as glass mirrors, acrylic balls, and LED lights, The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away converts Kusama’s unique perspective of reality into installation art, allowing visitors to glimpse the world as she does (“Infinity Mirrored Room”). Only a pair of people are meant to experience the installation at a time (although all three of my siblings and I entered together), and each group only receives forty-five seconds to experience it (“Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms”). The room, which makes up the piece, encloses its viewers with mirrors. Five line each wall; twenty-five, the ceiling. A small standing area on the floor is surrounded by a platform of black glass. Put together, the effect of these mirrors facing each other is “an endless field of increasingly smaller reflections” on all sides (Kim). Captured in this infinity effect are the acrylic balls, lit with LEDs, which seem to float into an unbounded distance. When I walked into the installation and took in this expanse, I was both thrilled and stunned. It was a moment akin to gazing up at the galaxies on a clear night, except I was no longer separated from them by layers of unreachable atmosphere. I felt as if I was standing among the stars—fantasy meeting reality at long last.
Like the infinity mirrored room, panoramas made in the late-eighteenth-century style also create an immersive, transportive experience for audiences. The visual effect enacted by panoramas operates differently, however. Shown in round display rooms, panoramas are floor-to-ceiling paintings made of multiple panels, so as to create an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the horizon (Oettermann 20). During the Industrial Revolution, they typically depicted sites which would have been less widely accessible at the time, such as foreign landscapes (Oettermann 12, 21). Thus, in “the age of the Grand Tour,” in which traversing Europe was highly fashionable for people with the funds to do it, panoramas recreated an accessible simulation of the much sought-after experience of “being transported to distant places” beyond the reach of most working-class Europeans (Oettermann 9, 21). Both the infinity mirrored room and the panorama therefore reflect a desire to travel beyond the familiar—extending human presence into places difficult to access.
This desire to move beyond human limitations, ever-expanding the capacity for experience, is foundational for the Anthropocene: the current period in which human influence pervades the globe. Mediated by such values, the universe depicted by panoramas and infinity rooms becomes an object for humans’ visual consumption. Panoramas, which transport viewers around the earth, correlate with desires to explore foreign parts of the planet that have contributed to people “[travelling] by personal car and jet aeroplane… some of the most energy intensive things a human can do” (Ellis 133). Such activities have resulted in “[geologists]… examining the formation of ‘technofossils’” such as “roads, and oil rigs” in the current century (Ellis 148). In turn, the infinity mirrored rooms correspond to Erle C. Ellis’ observation that “[technofossils] now also orbit Earth” and “rest on its moon and multiple planets” (148). At a time when people have walked on the moon and entrepreneurs now hope to capitalize on space travel, installations akin to The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away evoke an idealized vision of the infinite possibilities of human experience, such as venturing into the stars. As images of humans’ eagerness to explore our planet and beyond, panoramas and infinity mirrored rooms translate this aspect of the Anthropocene into art—rendering it attractive and desirable.
Notably, the Anthropocene involves more than just the permeation of human presence throughout nature; the term also evokes our species’ domination of it. As Ellis claims, “[the] Anthropocene is defined by humans changing Earth so profoundly that they will leave a permanent record on its rocks” (155). So too can the panorama be interpreted as a simulation of human control over an all-encompassed environment. According to Stephan Oettermann, panoramas “[collect] all the details of visible nature, significant and insignificant, in perfect perspective” (28). Both Oettermann and Jonathan Crary note that, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the horizontal layout of panoramas encouraged viewers’ eyes away from the upward observance required by religious ceiling frescos, an older art form in Europe (Crary 20; Oettermann 25). Consequently, panoramas ignore the notion of a godly authority over people and the planet—positioning humans as the pinnacle of sentient beings. They present an unprotected world in apparent completeness to the gaze of consumers empowered through the liberation of a secular perspective. Panoramas therefore appear to simulate a planet exposed to domination by humankind: Earth in the Anthropocene.
In an exploration of infinity rooms as a twenty-first-century counterpart to the panorama, it is worth evaluating how the installations uniquely reproduce the power relationship between people and the universe. Since my siblings and I had less than a minute to experience The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, we entered the installation with a game plan. As soon as the museum employee closed the door to the infinity room behind us, my brother and sister would take as many pictures of us as they could on their iPhones. Thus, we would be able to extend our forty-five seconds in outer space into an eternity, especially once we posted the photographs on our Instagrams. As a result, in our experience of the installation, the mirrors reflected not just LED lights, but also endless representations of humans capturing galaxies through the lenses of phone cameras. Our ambition to claim infinite space was not unique. On Instagram, 78.5 thousand similar audiences have posted pictures tagged #infinityroom; 124 thousand, #infinitymirrors (#infinitymirrors; #infinityroom). Evidently, just as panoramas align with an anthropocenic attitude of human dominance over nature, infinity rooms tend to induce a current, common fascination with mastering endless space.
According to both Oettermann and Crary, however, the freedom and empowerment offered by panoramas is illusory—a facade for imprisonment. This claim can apply to infinity mirrored rooms and the Anthropocene. Crary calls panoramas “phantasmagoric,” since the rotundas in which they are shown are constructed in such a way as to conceal the immersive images’ two-dimensionality (18-19). For example, by placing a viewing platform, surrounded by “a moatlike [sic] area” at the center of the display room, panoramas leave audiences with “nothing… to assist in a subjective rationalization of the… distance between eye and image” (Crary 19). The interior of the rotundas are also typically kept dim so as to hide “the seams of the separate [canvases]” combined to create the immersive image (Crary 19). Functionally, the illusion created by panoramas distracts from the realization that, while the image transports consumers to distant realms and feeds them with dreams of mastery, it also “surrounds [them] completely and hems them in far more than all previous artistic attempts to reproduce landscapes” (Oettermann 21). Again, panoramas reflect the Anthropocene: as humans use the natural world for our own advantage, we also surround ourselves in the consequences of our actions. As Ellis reveals, the “5 billion tonnes [of plastic]” that humans have produced over time “is enough to wrap Earth’s entire surface in a thin layer of plastic film” (148). Like panoramas, the Anthropocene involves the phantasmagoric. Behind the enticing liberties and authority our species exerts upon nature lies a prison of man-made waste.
In many ways, infinity mirrored rooms evoke the same mystifying, concealing effect as the panorama. Their anti-phantasmagoric qualities, however, provide insight into how the current moment of the Anthropocene differs from that of the Industrial Revolution. For instance, when the museum employee running The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away shut the door to the infinity room, enclosing my siblings and I inside it, I felt dizzy. Visually, the room had endless space for me to move freely in any direction. I had the sensation of standing atop a ladder and looking down at the ground. My mother experienced the illusion even more profoundly than I did. During her turn inside the installation, she was too terrified of falling off the platform to look at the rest of the room. Both my mother and I could not feel that we were enclosed within a closet-sized space. Despite this, we knew that we were. While waiting in line to enter the infinity mirrored room, we could see glimpses of its interior whenever the usher let groups in or out. In these moments, its illusion broke: the outside world appeared in the mirror opposite the door, and infinite space became finite. Furthermore, while I was inside the room, I noticed that the seams between mirrors actually caught the light of the LEDs and became opaque—very unlike how panoramas work to hide their joints. I suggest that the conflicting feeling of being disoriented in limitless surrounds, while also standing in a recognizably limited structure, is a crucial feature of infinity rooms which matches the turmoil of the Anthropocene in the twenty-first-century.
The faltering mirage characteristic of infinity rooms parallels how, during the current moment in the Anthropocene, even as people continue to challenge the limits of human experience, the damages we inflict upon nature have become undeniably detectable. In recent years, evidence of Earth’s decline under human influence (such as “failed agriculture, submerged cities” and “catastrophic climate change”) have haunted news outlets (Ellis 155). Therefore, infinity mirrored rooms seem to reflect how we can no longer avoid encountering the truth of the environment we have created. Meanwhile, just as my mother and I felt the infiniteness of The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, despite comprehending its manipulation of the senses, the false limitlessness of the Anthropocene continues to allure. At least for myself, the ease and enjoyment provided by a lifestyle involving plastics, electronic waste, and carbon-emissions is difficult to abandon, even though I am aware of the damage they cause. Thus, the illusory quality of panoramas identified by Crary and Oettermann can also apply to infinity mirrored rooms. Both panoramas and infinity rooms can be interpreted as reflections of the Anthropocene’s seductive promise of boundless autonomy—a snare which many now knowingly embrace.
Many parallels exist between panoramas popular during the Industrial Revolution and Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013). Both immersive art forms offer consumers transportation beyond human limits, while also insinuating human mastery of Earth’s environments. At the same time, panoramas and Kusama’s infinity mirrored rooms both embody a tension between the illusion of total agency and the reality of enclosure or imprisonment characteristic of the Anthropocene. The quality of entrapment is especially timely, as humans grapple with leaving behind the temptation to harness nature for our own benefit, to instead keep our planet livable for generations to come. Now is the time to struggle against the pride and ambitions reenacted in artworks such as panoramas and The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, difficult as it may be.
Crary, Jonathan. “Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century.” Grey Room, vol. 9, 2002, pp.5.25.
Ellis, Erle C. Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018. “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions Light Years Away.” The Broad,
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Kim, Kyle. “They’re the size of small sheds, but seem huge inside. Here’s the trick to Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 19 Oct. 2017,
www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-g-yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrors-explaine-20171019-htmlstory.html. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Oettermann, Stephan. Introduction: The Origins of the Panorama. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, by Oettermann, Zone Books, 1997, pp. 5-47.
“Yayoi Kusama.” The Broad, www.thebroad.org/art/yayoi-kusama. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
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