Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum has an exhibit called Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and it is the hottest ticket in town. It will also be the hottest ticket in town when it hits Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta. The Kusama exhibit is touring and winning, like Beyonce and the Rolling Stones. Especially the Stones, as Yayoi Kusama is 88 and still making art after 65 years. Here’s five things you need to know about the exhibit.
1) Why is this one so hot?
The exhibit includes a number of works from Kusama’s most recent series My Eternal Soul. Most notable: six of Kusama’s famed Infinity Mirror rooms will be on display. This is an artist whose work has only gotten stronger with time. It’s a show of depth and breadth, and it photographs beautifully.
2) You must have a ticket or membership.
An essential thing to know: to avoid out-of-control crowds, the highly popular exhibit requires timed tickets. Your first option is to get in line early for limited same day tickets.
Option two is to hover over your internet every Monday at 11:59 a.m. as though Springsteen has just announced a final show to be played in your high school gym. Here’s the link to “win” timed passes; it includes all kinds of useful information.
There is a third option: Hirshhorn members can visit the exhibit at any time, with a guest. Alas, memberships are sold out. Maybe you know someone?
PRO TIP: It may be time to explore a membership if you live near the Seattle Art Museum, The Broad in L.A., the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
3) Prepare yourself for lines.
You have a ticket! Now prepare yourself for lines: a line to get in the building, a line to get in the exhibit, and yes, lines for each installation room. Before you groan, remember that you have done this at every amusement park you’ve ever visited. Plus you’ll have Kusama paintings and sculptures to view while you wait, not to mention the chance to chat with friends and strangers alike.
If you are really anti-line, this exhibit may not be your thing, as you will likely wait for five to twenty-five minutes for each installation, all for 20-30 seconds in a mirror room. That’s it. The good news: there will only be two or three of you in the room. Hence the reason for the lines: the museum is giving you the chance to fully engage with a room, if only for half a minute. If you appreciate unique experiences and don’t mind a queue, it’s worth it.
4) Research the artist before you go.
The PBS Newshour profiled the exhibit in this nice piece. Philip Kennicott’s February 16 Washington Post critique on the exhibit was illuminating; he’s a fan of the work, less so of the curating. An excerpt:
Visitors new to the work of one of most famous and beloved contemporary artists will have little sense of her compelling personal story: A brilliant avant-garde pioneer who has also lived into her late 80s with deep obsessions and neuroses, who has been hospitalized and still lives in a hospital, who is unashamed of the fact and isn’t hesitant or embarrassed to connect her art to her mental illness.
I know what shone through for me throughout the exhibit: Yayoi Kusama feels things deeply. She is, for example, overwhelmed by the beauty of the simple pumpkin; she fell in love with the misshapen gourds as a child. How does she respond to this love? She creates an Infinity Mirrored Room called “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.”
The exhibit is not all gorgeous gourds. Kusama calls to mind Kafka. He said that the meaning of life is that it ends; she frets that “I am trapped in my life, yet I cannot escape from death.” And then she pours her fear into her work.
Take “Infinity Mirrored Room—Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity.” In this one, golden lanterns flicker in the black mirrored space; the light seems to go on forever — until the room plunges into darkness for a second. The exhibit explains the work’s inspiration:
“The imagery in this work recalls the Japanese tradition of toro nagashi, a ceremony in which paper lanterns known as chochin float down a river to guide ancestral spirits back to their resting places on the final night of the summer obon festivals. The ceremony often commemorates the victims of the atomic bombs.”
5. Do go back and revisit at least one room.
My friend Kathy and I went through the whole exhibit. We took photos and marveled. We were about to leave when we noticed a minor miracle: there was almost no line for “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.”
We agreed: we’d go through again, this time without cameras. We got in line behind an elegant woman in her sixties, clad in a neat suit and fitted black coat.
The staff person gave the three of us the usual spiel. We must leave our bags and coats on the floor outside the room; we had 25 seconds to take photos, look around, not touch anything. The elegant woman looked suspiciously at the scuffed floor and clutched her smart black purse.
A compromise was reached: our fellow museum goer reluctantly handed over her things to a security guard. The three of us prepared to walk in the room.
“Would you like me to take your picture?” I asked, feeling magnanimous.
The woman looked at me as though I was insane.
“Whatever for?” she said, and then the door closed behind us. The room was lit only by the glow of row after row of pumpkins lining the floor, hanging from the ceiling.
“They look like lanterns up there,” our companion remarked. We all looked up. They did.
This thought had not occurred to me in my earlier flurry of photo taking.
Maybe the lantern-like pumpkins hanging from the ceiling were meant to recall the paper lanterns that guide ancestral spirits back to their resting places. Maybe this installation — so joyous, so full of “All The Eternal Love” Kusama has for pumpkins — maybe even this one reflects her fear of the finite. Maybe that fear is always there, even in the seemingly light-hearted works, and still she perseveres and makes art to share with the world, our brave Yayoi Kusama.
Our time ended. The elegant woman quickly reached for her purse; it was clearly an affront to have it removed.
“Did you see the room with the lanterns?” I asked her.
She peered back at the longer lines and sniffed. “I did not. This was enough.”
The funny thing is, I remember her almost as vividly as the rooms. She made me look, see pumpkins transformed to lanterns. And later, when I started writing, the connections came to me.
I know this much is true: “All the Eternal Love I have for Pumpkins” is my favorite.
It’s where I saw the most.