That’s the exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum, all polka-dotted up for the current exhibit “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” as seen during my recent visit.
Once inside, you’re not allowed to take any pictures of the artwork.
That’s a joke, of course. Taking photos is the entire point of the exhibit, like it or not.
(Above: views of Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away  and Dots Obsession—Love Transformed into Dots  by Yayoi Kusama.)
But before you can do that, you have to make it inside. Many articles have been written on this subject, with discouraging headlines like “How to Survive the Yayoi Kusama Show.” All I’ll add is that your best bet may be to opt for same-day tickets by getting in line by 9:00 am. The museum opens at 10:00, and then they hand out timed tickets on a first-come first-served basis.
Online tickets are worth a shot, but the odds are not good. (More about ticketing on the Hirshhorn’s website.)
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” installation view
What’s the big deal?
This is surely not the first article you’ve read about this exhibit. So what makes it so special?
Art-lovers are, in general, accustomed to a certain way of enjoying exhibits:
- show up whenever you like
- go by yourself or with a group
- take your time
But a quick look around the second floor of the Hirshhorn confirms that you can throw those expectations out the window and get used to:
- timed tickets
- lines of people with their phones at the ready
- guards-slash-bouncers armed with actual stopwatches to limit your time
This kind of phones-first exhibit was always going to upset some people — but is it any less valid as an art exhibit?
Oh right, the art.
Views from the exhibit’s final portion, the Obliteration Room. Viewers receive six colored stickers to add to the white walls, props, and Ikea furniture.
Before she became famous in your Instagram feed, Yayoi Kusama was known as an artist who works in many different media and with a variety of reoccurring obsessions. This exhibit is a retrospective of her work, spanning seven decades and the museum’s entire second floor.
The first thing you’ll see in the exhibit is a video introduction from Kusama herself:
The second thing you’ll see is her early drawing. This is also a first glimpse at one of those obsessions I mentioned: dots.
Ink drawing on paper by Yayoi Kusama
Things quickly progress from there, with the next two rooms introducing Kusama’s soft sculptures, phallus motif, and repetitive Infinity Nets paintings.
Foreground: A Snake, sewn and stuffed fabric with silver paint, by Yayoi Kusama. 1974.
Infinity Nets Yellow, oil on canvas, by Yayoi Kusama. 1960.
Soon you’ll see the first lines for the main event: one of six mirrored rooms from the exhibit’s title. Created as immersive environments ripe for “self-obliteration,” they are a little less Zen in this incarnation. (More on that below.)
In addition to the artwork itself, there’s a remarkable story to the 87-year-old artist, who — in the face of mental illness and a male-centric, Western-focused art world — has enjoyed commercial and critical success and is among the most popular living artists. You can learn more about her life in this video interview, this blog post, or by reading her autobiography, Infinity Net.
So back to my question: is a popular, Instagram-bait retrospective any less valid as an art exhibit?
To elaborate on that answer: it’s different, for sure. But not worse.
This is an exhibit that is literally impossible to enjoy in solitude. It’s not allowed: If you go alone, you’ll be paired up with a stranger to be admitted to the mirrored rooms. You’ll find no peace and quiet, and — despite the mirrors — no time for reflection. In each special room, your time is limited to 20–30 seconds.
(You’re free to take your time for the rest of the exhibit, which is also fun:)
Installation view of “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors”
Everything points to “Infinity Mirrors” as an alternative way of experiencing an art exhibit, one where the experience must be shared, not solitary. In fact, you get to share it twice: once with the people there, and once with your online followers. (Hi!)
It has much in common with the performing arts, or Disneyland for that matter, while being more accessible than either. Tickets are still free, even if they’re hard to get. And people with restricted mobility can see the exhibit via virtual reality.
gif by Joanna Wohlmuth
It’s true that waiting in lines and being rushed isn’t going to become my preferred kind of art outing. But this exhibit means that Kusama can still treat me to an art happening, decades after the sixties.
What this exhibit doesn’t mean:
- Timed tickets and selfie-centric exhibits are the new norm
- You can’t still find emptier, quieter museums around town
- All of art is cheapened when new populations discover exhibits that excite them
In short, arts-lovers should be welcoming these crowds, especially in a time when museums are striving to increase attendance and (hopefully) reach out to underserved communities they’ve historically written off. “Infinity Mirrors” is an exhibit that, despite the lines, does its best to make room for everyone.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum through May 14, 2017 and is traveling to other locations afterward.