The first time I went to the Hirshhorn Museum’s “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” exhibition, I went as a reviewer, and had the place to myself. That’s a great way to encounter art and engage with the exhibition’s theme and argument, but it’s not the experience most people have. So last week, I decided to go back, posing as an ordinary visitor.
The Kusama exhibition has been setting attendance records at the Hirshhorn with visitor numbers triple the average since the show opened in February, and foot traffic at its highest in almost four decades. Big crowds, alas, mean long lines. The exhibition, built around Kusama’s immersive boxes in which visitors are surrounded by mirrors and reflected lights, creates almost impossible crowd-management problems. You will need a timed ticket to get in, and then expect to wait in often long lines to enjoy only 20-30 seconds inside each of the individual Infinity Rooms.
But long lines haven’t dampened enthusiasm, and the popularity of the exhibition has become a phenomenon distinct from the art itself. My visit as a reviewer before the show’s opening meant that I had a different Kusama experience than most people who will queue up for the boxes. I missed not only the lines, but the social aspect of being in a crowded museum; and while I didn’t spend hours in the Infinity Rooms, I got to spend a lot more time there than other visitors. Thus, I missed the temporal dynamics of the “average” visit, full of the intensity of expectation, extended periods of waiting, and brief moments of enjoyment.
Unfortunately, despite my best attentions to check my critic’s privilege at the door, demand for entry passes was so high this month that I fell back on asking for special entry as a member of the press. I was graciously accommodated, but despite that turned down an offer to go to the front of the individual lines outside each Infinity Room.
The crowds were thick at the beginning of exhibition, so I skipped the first few boxes and proceeded to a couple of my favorite spaces: The 2009 “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” with its golden glow of flickering lanterns, and the 2016 “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” which suggests an endless field of preternaturally glowing gourds. The lines were a bit shorter. I queued up for the first of these at 5:56 on a Wednesday evening, when the Hirshhorn has extended hours until 8 p.m. to accommodate demand. I finally made it into the first box at 6:18, and spent about 30 seconds inside the space. Then I got in line for the pumpkins, where visits are limited to 20 seconds, and made it in about 15 minutes later.
After that, I toured the Kusama galleries, full of her paintings and sculpture, and then made my way to the exit, through the “Obliteration Room,” where visitors are invited to paste colored polka-dot stickers on the white walls and furnishings of the now well-obliterated and raucously colorful space. This final room of the show was more meaningful the second time around, with its exuberance of stickers, and with the crowds lingering and enjoying a bit of camaraderie. It is one of the more relaxing and engaging moments in the exhibition, perhaps because only at the exit point do visitors finally feel free of the tension of expectation and gratification — waiting and reward — that defines much of the experience.
Unfortunately, Kusama’s basic aesthetic — her fascination with infinity and repetition and the way these things can obliterate the ego (like being dwarfed by a sea of stars on a cloudless night) — is lost when the time in each room is so rushed. You have barely registered the basic look of the space when there is a knock on the door and it opens, daylight rushes in and you’re on your way to the next one. The noise of the crowd also filters through the walls of Kusama’s boxes, disrupting the serenity I remembered from my earlier encounters.
Critics, of course, experience museums in fundamentally different ways from most audiences. But the mad crowds of the Kusama exhibition raise important questions about the basic experience museums offer, and whether they can continue to offer it in an age when success is measured in foot traffic, admission and other revenue (if the museum has an entry fee), and a host of crowd-based metrics (social media success, including Instagram posts, among them).
Museums such as the Hirshhorn, which don’t charge admission and offer intangible rather than material rewards, seem to be harnessing the power of what is often called the “Experience Economy.” The idea is simple: Some people are more interested in experiencing things (like travel, art, social gatherings) than buying material objects. Exhibitions such as the Kusama show appeal to much the same audience that is attracted to “experiences” over objects, a large, and largely young, audience of people who would rather invest their money and time in going to things, being out and about, and soaking in the ambiance of a place and the dynamics of an event, than drop a fortune on clothes or designer shoes or a new car.
The Experience Economy also seems to promise a reservoir of fundamentally aesthetic interest in the world — better to enjoy a sunset on the beach or an afternoon at the Kusama exhibit than hoard up useless money in your back account. That seemingly anti-materialistic energy could be diverted into a more prominent social role and perhaps better bottom line for museums. It seems to be an egalitarian system, too, rewarding people for their curiosity, engagement and willingness to wait in line rather than merely for their socioeconomic status.
But the more you examine the actual experience offered at the Kusama show, the less idealistic it seems. Like other highly prized experiences (sky diving, ziplining, trekking to Machu Picchu), those who have financial resources are more likely to be able to enjoy it. Not only do they have greater freedom to arrange their schedules around the experience, they are more likely to gain in social status from saying they have participated. And afterward, they are better positioned to relate the experience to a reservoir of similar experiences, and thus integrate it into their memory and worldview.
The temporal dynamics of a crowded exhibition, such as the Kusama show, also underscore psychological aspects of modern existence that are fundamentally anti-aesthetic. The waiting, the expectation, and the brief reward are antithetical to what is sometimes called “mindfulness,” or being deeply present for an aesthetic experience. The great American philosopher John Dewey tried to define “experience” in philosophical and aesthetic terms. An experience seems to sum up something; it has a flow to it, an intensity and a consummation: “There is that meal in a Paris restaurant of which one says, ‘that was an experience.’ It stands out as an enduring memorial of what food may be,” Dewey wrote.
But the experience of Kusama is discontinuous, fractured, full of stops and delays and rushed encounters. It is, in fact, so unsatisfying that one might reasonably say there is no experience of it at all, which is why the selfie Instagram picture is so important. Rather like the Obliteration Room, in which visitors paste colored stickers over blank, white walls, the selfie is something pasted over the blankness of the experience itself.
And it is something that can be exchanged. Placing the selfie on social media not only substitutes for the experience that didn’t in fact happen, it engages the audience in an economy of images, including exchange, competition and reward (praise, “likes,” retweets). The experience at the core of the Experience Economy is now looking not so different from any other commodity, although it is less tangible.
This exhibition highlights problems far deeper than those raised by the all-too-successful blockbuster shows of the past. This isn’t about managing success and finding the right balance between access for crowds and the integrity of the individual aesthetic experience. Rather, this is about the nature of experience itself, and whether museums want to reinforce an understanding of existence that is fractured, competitive, capitalistic and ultimately alienated from art. Or strive for something else, something more radical, something that doesn’t align so easily with how we experience the rest of the world outside the museum walls? So, the Kusama dilemma isn’t about the dynamics of crowd control and better ticketing systems; it’s about the basic mission of the institution.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors through May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Timed passes required. For more information visit hirshhorn.si.edu.