To Infinity and Beyond: Inside The Obliteration Room at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Scott Shaw Photography for the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

In The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama provides colorful dot stickers that visitors can use to eliminate the traces of the original white room through the act of communal “obliteration.” But what about the objects in the room? Many hold special meaning for those who donated them to the exhibition and who contributed to the interior design.

The end of the exhibition also signals the end of these objects. As Kusama intended, they will be obliterated. We reached out to CMA staff who lent their objects and expertise to the room. Here are their stories.

Jim Engelmann, exhibition designer, Cleveland Museum of Art. Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Alien Planet
Jim Engelmann, exhibition designer, Cleveland Museum of Art

The globe I donated to The Obliteration Room was well used before it arrived in our house. It was made sometime in the late 1940s or ’50s and included a lot of out-of-date political boundaries: the USSR, East and West Germany, British Rhodesia, and French Indochina. The globe could have been a good conversation piece to keep around on top of the piano. And I used it to take my children on a couple tours through the 20th century to explain how national borders had changed and why.

At least one of its owners was a smoker. Over time, because of smoke and age, the globe developed a yellow-orange-brown color and at a distance resembled Mars. It once had a lamp inside, but that was burnt out. The globe looked like a smog-covered earth. By no fault of its own, it was rather ugly.

When the call for donations to Kusama’s Obliteration Room went out, our globe seemed like a natural choice. It had served its purpose in my house and really needed a fresh coat of paint. Now as part of The Obliteration Room, it’s been fun to watch it change. When it was first painted as an all-white sphere, it looked like a very round egg. After the first couple of days, it resembled a giant candy jawbreaker with multicolored spots. And as the spots grew, you could imagine it as a globe again for some alien planet where every country, lake, and mountain is a bright colored dot.

Liz Pim, assistant director of volunteer management, donated the rocking chair she used to share with her son John (right). Image courtesy Liz Pim. Installation view of The Obliteration Room (left), Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Rock-a-Bye Baby
Liz Pim, assistant director of volunteer management, Cleveland Museum of Art

When the call went out for donations for The Obliteration Room, I thought of my rocking chair. One of my friends had given it to me as a baby shower gift seventeen years ago before my son, John, was born. It was blue and had pillows. At first I thought I shouldn’t part with it. But then I thought it would be great fun to be part of the exhibition.

It thrills me to see people sitting on it when I go through the room. Lots of people hold babies on it. John visited it at the beginning of the exhibition and put a sticker on it. We have plans to visit together before the show ends and have our picture taken with it.

Howard Agriesti, chief photographer, Cleveland Museum of Art. Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Picture Perfect
Howard Agriesti, chief photographer, Cleveland Museum of Art

I donated four cameras to the exhibition, along with a sculpted cake stand and cover that was formed and painted to look like a Cassata Cake as well as a votive candle holder in the form of an aluminum stag, with six votive candle cups on the tips of its antlers.

One camera was very special: my father’s Voigtlander German camera that he used for all the Kodachromes he took of his wife and family of six kids during the ’50s and ’60s. It had a pair of doors in the front that opened to pop the lens out and extend it on locking struts, and a tall plunger to advance the film to the next frame. Dad was very precise with it and his light meter, and those Kodachromes were like magic to us. It took forever to finish a roll, and when it was finally sent off to Kodak for processing, it seemed to take an eternity to appear in the mailbox. But when it did we knew there was a special evening in store for us.

After dinner and after dark, Dad would set up the screen and the projector, which was an old single-slot, one-slide-at-a-time affair — no carousel fanciness in our house! Mom brought the popcorn in, and the lights went down, and one by one we would see the events of the previous weeks or even months show up in glorious color right before our eyes. Those were special moments. So I thought it the perfect coda to the Voigtlander’s time as our minister of color memories that it be slowly “obliterated” by the dots of bright, vibrant, beautiful color in Kusama’s stunning exhibition.

The camera also has a special connection to Dr. Seuss. I was in La Jolla, California, for my sister’s wedding reception in 1987, bicycling around making photographs. I stopped on a bluff overlooking the Pacific near a bookstore to photograph a Henry Moore sculpture. There was an old man standing next to me with a camera just like Dad’s, except his had the attached light meter. We talked about Voigtlander cameras for a while and how great they were before saying so long and have a nice day.

I then stopped near the entrance to the bookstore where I noticed a sign touting their featured book of the month. It was the first novel written by Theodor Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — and it was not a children’s book but an adult novel. And in the corner was a photo of the author; it was the man to whom I had just been speaking! I looked back to the spot, and he was gone. I then realized I had just met Dr. Seuss, author of many of my favorite childhood books. So Dad and his camera helped with that.

Robin Koch, curatorial assistant, Cleveland Museum of Art. Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Thrifty Cleveland
Robin Koch, curatorial assistant, Cleveland Museum of Art

We asked staff to donate items found in a typical home, such as cameras, books, CDs, small pieces of furniture and knick-knacks. We collected donations throughout the month of March and the conservation department vetted these items, discarding the objects that did not fit within guidelines provided by Kusama’s studio and by the CMA.

We began mapping out which items would fit in each room and brainstormed a shopping list for items that were still missing. This is where the real fun began. We were given a small budget and went on several shopping excursions to various stores around Cleveland — Target, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Goodwill, thrift stores, and even garage sales. Most of the furniture was ordered from Ikea and appliances were purchased from the Re-Store here in Cleveland. In one of our brainstorming sessions, we decided to give The Obliteration Room a little bit of Cleveland flavor by including a leg lamp. The movie A Christmas Story is iconic in Cleveland because the house from the film is located in Tremont. We also included a small plaque with the Cleveland skyline and a block letter “K” on the bookcase (for Kusama).

One kind of funny anecdote, I think, is that while we were placing items in the room, it was important to keep items that had not yet been painted from scuffing the furniture, walls, and floor, which had already been painted. We were required to wear disposable booties while working in the space and place sheets of paper underneath all of the objects so we could maintain the pristine atmosphere, which is a testament to the true quality of our installation.

Installation view of The Obliteration Room, Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Extreme Makeover: Kusama Edition
Andrew Gutierrez, associate director of design & architecture, Cleveland Museum of Art

The intention of the design was to re-create a typical northeast Ohio domestic living space per the artist’s requirements. The space allotted for this installation is perfect for a nicely sized apartment. The open-plan layout consists of an entry space, kid’s play area, living room, study, dining room, and kitchen. We started collecting secondhand objects from staff in March and later purchased new, affordable, larger-scale furniture to create the environment. Books and other miscellaneous items like picture frames and tableware from secondhand stores were added later.

To give the space some Cleveland-specific flare, we included a miniature Cleveland skyline, a CLE logo, sports equipment, and the Leg Lamp from the classic movie A Christmas Story. Props related to the lamp scene were included in that area and are sure to please. All of these items were painted by CMA production staff and secured. Another fun addition — and my favorite — is a Buzz Lightyear toy. We all know his catchphrase.

The living space continues to evolve from an attractive, stark white, visually simple space to a complex, playful space where it’s getting difficult to spot individual items.