The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden spent two years preparing to give visitors about 20 seconds of wow.
“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” invites visitors to consider their place in the universe by immersing themselves in the Japanese artist’s whimsical and ethereal installations.
The ephemeral nature of the exhibition’s mirror rooms — the enclosures that seem simultaneously cosmological and kitschy — belies the painstakingly detailed work required to host it. From constructing the conceptual artworks to controlling the crowds, the Smithsonian’s modern and contemporary art museum has stretched its staff and budget for the exhibition’s 12-week run.
“The Kusama show is the culmination of two years of hard work that has not been visible,” said Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu.
The Hirshhorn hired staff, recruited and trained volunteers, and purchased dozens of roped stanchions to corral the crowds. The museum introduced timed passes to control anticipated crowds, brought Dolcezza Gelatto and Coffee to its courtyard for refreshments and offered audio guides for the show, which runs through May 14.
“A great deal of our thinking was about the orchestration of the visitor through the building,” Chiu said. “What’s the optimal engagement with this exhibition, how can we make it meaningful and compelling?”
Despite the planning, opening weekend was chaotic. Even with timed passes, hundreds of visitors waited hours to get into the gallery during its first weekend; many complained they had only a few seconds to experience the rooms and often were forced to enter with strangers. There was more waiting than experiencing, they said.
Hirshhorn officials are trying to adapt, and they expect these early difficulties to be resolved. “It is a demanding show to execute on,” Chiu said. “This is a learning experience for us.”
The exhibition’s centerpieces are the six mirror rooms and the “Obliteration Room,” installations that are immersive and participatory. Each room comes with an instructional manual that explains the technology required — from glass mirrors to LED lights — to create these alternate realities. The Hirshhorn’s crew of 15 installers worked for six weeks on the show, about three times the normal installation period.
Art installer Larissa Raddell began collecting items last fall for the all-white “Obliteration Room,” the exhibition’s final installation. Working with associate curator Mika Yoshitake, Raddell selected hundreds of items required to create the domestic space at the foundation of the piece. Visitors are given a sheet of adhesive dots, which they apply to the white surface, obliterating the sameness with bursts of red, pink, orange and green. The museum printed 750,000 polka dots for the piece.
“This creates a kind of communal experience,” Yoshitake said. “It’s about transformation, about revelation.”
Along with furniture and housewares donated by Ikea in College Park, Md., Raddell sought pieces from the Hirshhorn staff to fill the space. They responded with everything from books and DVDs to a piano and a globe. Everything was primed, painted the same white — even the white dishes and white couch were repainted — before being arranged and secured in place. Every surface — from the walls to the orchid blooms — must accept the adhesive dots.
“I spent a lot of time looking at my apartment, at my friends’ apartments,” Raddell said. “The goal is to be universal but also specific.”
Hirshhorn officials decided that timed passes — free and available online every Monday at noon — would maintain a steady flow of visitors through the exhibition. Unlike most museum shows, in which guests merely view what is on display, the Kusama installations are interactive. Deputy Director Elizabeth Duggal said more staff and better signs will be on hand outside, where lines will be better marked.
Since visitors are staying longer than anticipated, the museum will release fewer passes for the coming weeks. They also will increase the number of same-day passes available starting at 10 a.m., from 20 percent to 35 percent of the day’s allotment. They also suspended sales of memberships, which allow holders entry at any time.
“It’s a really delicate balance,” Duggal said. “It’s not just about getting into the exhibition, it’s about once you’re in there and having those wonderful personal experiences with the art.”
Another important addition is the recruitment of 100 volunteers to work with the crowds. Most exhibitions require two to four volunteers in the galleries; the Hirshhorn is scheduling 25 to 30 for the Kusama run. Their training included a seminar on interacting with visitors, role-playing scenarios that might occur in the gallery, and learning about Kusama’s art and its place in art history.
“It’s fun and playful, but it makes you question your mortality,” said Mariah Cianelli, a D.C. resident.
Kandra James works in sales but volunteered because she wanted to be part of the dynamic show. “When you see this body of work, and her unselfish way of living life, it almost makes the noise that’s going on politically, it silences it a little,” she said.