Yayoi Kusama, Peep Show or Endless Love Show (1966) Installed at Castellane Gallery, New York, 1966. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
The exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” has been open at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for two months, but at 10 a.m. on a Monday, there was a line to get into it that wrapped around the entire circumference of the building. Timed passes, which are released online every Monday for the following week, have been as difficult to obtain as tickets to the recent LCD Soundsystem revival. People are even scalping them on Craigslist. The exhibition is a big deal — especially for a city like Washington, DC, where art is seldom at the forefront of local conversation.
But upon entering the show, it quickly became clear to me that the reason for all the hubbub has less to do with a widespread affinity for the groundbreaking work of the 88-year-old Japanese artist than it does the burning need to take a selfie against what has become the social media backdrop of the moment.
Even without the whole timed-entry thing, the show is strategically assembled to move people through quickly. Each room is part of the same long corridor, so there’s no chance of getting lost or distracted. Once you reach your final destination, the interactive “Obliteration Room”, where you can place a selection of dot stickers on a surface of your choosing, an attendant politely informs you that if you enter this ultimate room, there’s no going back into the exhibition. And yet, even with such conveyor belt-like efficiency, you end up spending about 40% of your time waiting in lines to enter the infinity mirror rooms, which are smaller, enclosed environments built into the spaces that the exhibition occupies. Each can fit 2-3 people at a time, so if, like me, you choose to attend alone, be prepared to spend time in intimate environments with strangers — and also show up in the background of their pictures.
Yayoi Kusama, Installation view of Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field, 1965, in Floor Show, Castellane Gallery, New York, 1965.Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York.
It’s not so much all the waiting around that’s the problem, though. That’s to be expected with a high-profile, interactive exhibition like this. But the visual of person after person dutifully standing in line for 20 minutes only to walk into one of the rooms for approximately 30 seconds (attendants are stationed at each entrance to ensure you leave your bags and backpacks outside and to swing open the door when your brief time is up), take a series of frantic pictures, and move onto the next thing, is a little disturbing. Many critics have lamented our smartphone-induced inability to react to or appreciate art without feeling we have to somehow capture it, and it feels like that phenomenon has reached its peak at this exhibition. Watching the way people behave in the mirrored rooms — snapping away on their phones for the entirety of their time there — it’s hard not to wonder if anyone’s actually processing anything about the work beyond how to pose with it.
This is a far cry, of course, from what the artist intended. Kusama, who was born to an affluent family in Japan in 1929, began as a painter but shifted her focus to installation and sculpture in the mid-1960s. At the time, she was an integral part of the avant-garde art world and hippie counterculture in New York, organizing anti-war happenings that often involved nudity and took place in public spaces. Her first room, Phalli’s Field, was constructed in 1965 in a 15-square-foot space, which Kusama filled with her signature red and white polka dot “phalli.” Over the course of her career, she’s designed 19 other mirror rooms, six of which, including Phalli’s Field, are part of the Hirshhorn exhibition.
In Hirshhorn’s exhibition catalog, she tells director Melissa Chiu: “I wanted to show that I am one of the elements — one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe.”
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013). Collection of the artist; The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles.
This notion of being a small speck in the midst of something much larger than one’s self comes up again and again in discussions of Kusama’s work. A wall label outside The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a mirror room that was first displayed at David Zwirner Gallery in 2013 (to a similar lines-around-the-block, taking-over-your-Instagram-feed reception), reads: “Continuing [Kusama’s] exploration of the transience of life and the inevitability of death, this installation creates a harmonious and quiet place for visitors to contemplate their existence, reflect on the passage of time, and think about their relationship to the outer world.”
Well, that’s what it should do, at least. What it really does is create a quiet place for the viewer to think about how many likes their documentation of this experience is going earn them — a thought that’s completely incongruent with any kind of deeper contemplation. The knowledge that there’s a line of people and an attendant waiting anxiously for you outside also isn’t exactly conducive to losing yourself in thought. The rooms are intended to give way to a transporting experience, and it’s unfortunate that based on sheer logistics alone, most people will never be able to fully appreciate them in that way.
Artists can never anticipate the ways time and progress will shift how their work is understood, and it’s hard to imagine of a better example of this predicament than Kusama. Despite the fact that she began creating the rooms a solid 40 years before the iPhone and Facebook were invented, being inside them is, coincidentally, very conducive to participating in one of the biggest phenomena that those two inventions gave way to. Namely, the selfie. People have been taking photos of themselves since the advent of photography, but in the mid-aughts, the practice got the cute little moniker and social clout that it has today. By 2013, “selfie” was not only the word of the year but something that almost everyone — from your grandmother to your six-year-old nephew — had at some point taken. And one of the most popular ways of taking them is, of course, using a mirror. Bonus points if it’s a mirror surrounded by, say, hundreds of spotted pumpkins or thousands of twinkling lights. Basically, Kusama’s work couldn’t be more fitting for a context she could never have predicted.
Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore and Victoria Miro, London.
While she has long been revered in the art world, in recent years, Kusama has become a household name, thanks largely to the popularity of her infinity rooms on social media. When asked about this in an interview with Dazed, she responded diplomatically: “In the past few years there have been many exhibitions of my work touring the world. I would like people to feel my creation and its message. Once they manage to feel it, I am reminded of the greatness of the hymn of being human and the mystery of it and that makes me very happy.”
At 88 years old, Kusama is apparently too smart to get caught up in the game of obsessing about how every person who sees her work perceives it. Unfortunately, people’s frantic desire to get a picture of themselves inside the rooms has had consequences that reach far beyond their own failure to appreciate the experience. Just days after the exhibition opened, a spectacularly clumsy person broke one of the $800,000 spotted pumpkins inside All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins. While the Hirshhorn never confirmed exactly what the museumgoer was doing when said pumpkin broke, I think we can all agree it was probably another case of an art selfie gone wrong.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” closes at the Hirshhorn on May 14. After that, it will travel to the Seattle Art Museum, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the High Museum of Art, where it will close in February 2019. Not to be a traitor to my generation or anything (I too took several selfies at the exhibition), but I kind of hope one of those institutions has the guts to make visitors leave their phones outside. Some things are just too wonderful to be documented, and we should all probably start learning how to live with that.