Art is subjective. Many of us spend hours upon hours in countless galleries and museums, absorbing the creations of singular minds elevated – by critics, curators and tastemakers – to the fabled status of ‘artist’.
Their work can bring pleasure, distaste, discomfort; at worst, we leave these unique spaces feeling disappointed or simply disinterested. What we feel, though, is irrelevant. The point of art is that it makes us feel something.
The acceleration of technology has, however, sparked an irreversible change in the way we interact with art.
One visionary that understands – and has always understood – the importance of this human interaction is Yayoi Kusama, the 87-year-old pioneer whose exhibition, ‘Infinity Mirrors’, recently opened at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.
Described online as an “unforgettable sensory journey through the mind and legacy of one of the world’s most popular artists”, the exhibition houses six of Kusama’s iconic ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’.
Some are filled with twinkling lights, others with illuminated pumpkins and lanterns, but the common effect is a creation of seemingly infinite space which is unique to Yayoi Kusama.
‘Phalli’s Field’, created and shown way back in 1965, is the first of these rooms; filled with fabric phalluses covered in red polka dots densely packed on the floor, the installation allows visitors to interact with the art and gaze at their infinite reflection in these extraordinary spaces which also tackle themes of sexual anxiety and the hypnotic, hallucinatory effects of compulsive repetition.
In order to keep these themes alive and allow a personal experience with these legendary works of art, museums and galleries – the Hirshhorn Museum included – have introduced systems of timed tickets and limited entries in order to keep things running smoothly.
Endless lines and hurried exits are the unfortunate yet inevitable consequences of Yayoi Kusama’s popularity – a recent New York Times review of the exhibition quoted a friend who, when prompted by a sign to describe the experience in three words, quipped “endlessly long lines.”
Although each visitor is given only a small amount of time in each room, a brief search of the #yayoikusama hashtag on Instagram reveals a staggering 321,066 posts – many of which are recent portraits of bloggers and ‘influencers’ posing in the rooms and interacting with the art.
This, more than anything else, suggests that visitors are using their brief time to capture an image of themselves with Kusama’s work acting as a mere backdrop. Some would say this is a shame.
After all the selfie has come under fire from critics who see it as a symbol of modern narcissism; these critics bemoan the rise of a new, self-absorbed, perpetually distracted ‘millennial’ yielding no real pleasure from the world around them. These brutal hot takes are everywhere, and they often hone in on the same narrow narrative.
Others, however, have argued the selfie as a work of art in its own right as well as a cultural commentary. London’s Saatchi Gallery is one example of an institution looking to document the impact of our iPhone age by creating #SaatchiSelfie, a competition which will give Instagram users the chance to see their own face on display as an example of modern art.
Yayoi Kusama’s approach to art is more closely aligned with the latter of these two arguments. If galleries are often sparse spaces fraught with restrictions and literal distance between visitors and the art on display, these Infinity Mirror Rooms shatter those physical boundaries by inserting guests into the work.
It’s easy to forget how radical her ideas are in the context of a world so heavily regulated as the art industry, although this spirit of inclusivity and defiance manifests in the recurring themes of her work which are often anti-war, anti-conflict and pro-peace. The unfiltered human experience takes priority.
There are, however, occasionally disastrous repercussions – just a few weeks ago, a selfie-taker accidentally smashed one of Kusama’s highly-coveted pumpkins in a moment of self-distracted recklessness.
It’s not surprising though, nor should it be a point of criticism, that many of us flock to these exhibitions to nail the perfect selfie backdrop.
Yayoi Kusama is, after all, the perfect artist for today’s Instagram-obsessed generation; not only are the aesthetic qualities of her mirror rooms stunningly distinctive, the cultural credibility attached to her name allows us all to curate our personalities through our interest in the singular artist.
Kusama’s work, in particular, carries the power to transport us momentarily from the world around us and into a place of temporary utopia, using disorienting polka dots and clever mirrored halls to expand literal claustrophobic space into sprawling worlds of endless possibilities.
These worlds take shape with people inside them, a fact proven by a series of portraits which depict Kusama, clad in a blood-red catsuit, sprawled across the countless phalluses she obsessively stitched with her own hands for ‘Phalli’s Field’.
Incidentally, these pictures have become cover images for books, blogs and biographies and sparked a fascination with Kusama as a personality and an aesthetic point of reference. Fifty-two years later, her face was recreated on cardboard bookmarks at the MoMA and immortalized in emoji form at LA’s Cantor Fine Art gallery. Her own appearance is as legendary as her work itself.
Although increased access to art can result in destruction, distraction or self-obsession, Yayoi Kusama’s installations have long established a key idea – that art is something to be admired and dissected from afar, but the physical act of going to a gallery is, in itself, an experience.
Today’s world is defined by literal rules and borders which exist to create order. Art, however, operates in stark contrast to this – it is rooted in expression and inexplicable, uncensored reactions.
By creating these irresistibly colorful experiences, Yayoi Kusama is challenging art institutions and providing us all with a surreal canvas to use as we see fit.
More than 300,000 of us will have already used this canvas as a chance to capture our own image against these hypnotic, fantastical backdrops, whereas others have opted for the kind of technology-free approach which, back in 1965, was the only feasible option.
To selfie or not to selfie? There is no right or wrong answer – although, as Yayoi Kusama likely understands, our interactions with these Infinity Mirror Rooms can, like all good art, subconsciously reveal our personalities in a way that no logical medium ever could.
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- Lead image: Vegard Kleven/HOK