The first time I walked into a Yayoi Kusama mirror room, I spent a minute in isolation, pondering the infinite. I was surrounded by mirrors — on all sides, even the ceiling — and the floor was covered in the Japanese artist’s characteristic neon dots. I looked into the horizon and saw thousands of versions of my own reflection, growing smaller and smaller until I disappeared. I didn’t take a photo — I was in middle school, so the iPhone was still 10 years away, and it would take just as long for the word “selfie” to become ubiquitous.
It’s unlikely I would have the same experience encountering Kusama’s work for the first time at her new retrospective, “Infinity Mirrors,” which opened Thursday at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Now, alongside “psychedelic” and “kaleidoscopic,” it’s the word “Instagrammable” that’s used to describe the 87-year-old artist’s work. The lines of people waiting to see and photograph her art are so long that museums have had to devise strategies to control the crowds. And the first thing that most everyone does once inside the Technicolor dreamscape? Take a selfie.
Yayoi Kusama was ahead of her time. When she conceived of her rooms in the 1960s, there was no such thing as social media.
“Her mirror rooms are analog,” says Mika Yoshitake, who curated the Hirshhorn show. They represent “the impossibility of infinity, but the closest that one can get to it, through reflections. For our current generation, that’s almost an amazing phenomenon, because they’re so used to the virtual-reality spaces. I think there’s a fine line between the two that maybe merge, in a way, when you’re inside her mirror rooms.”
But Kusama, like most octogenarians, isn’t concerned with social media, Yoshitake says. She creates art to quiet her psychoses — she has long suffered from hallucinations, and her repetitive polka-dot motif became a form of art therapy. She lives voluntarily in a mental institution in Japan. And after a briefly explosive stint in New York in the ’60s, her work had, for a time, fallen out of favor.
It wouldn’t be fair to credit Instagram with Kusama’s comeback — there is new scholarship about her work and its place within the art world — but it certainly hasn’t hurt. Recent shows at the David Zwirner gallery in New York and an infinity mirror room at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles have resulted in intense publicity, not to mention waits of more than four hours to enter the Broad’s installation. (The Hirshhorn is distributing free timed passes for the first time for its retrospective.) Kusama’s name has been hashtagged nearly 300,000 times on Instagram; Katy Perry, Nicole Richie and Minka Kelly are among the celebrities who have taken selfies in the Broad’s mirror room; and Adele filmed a performance there.
“It’s a ready-made reflection of you immersed in another environment,” says Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu. “So I think that that has attracted a selfie phenomenon.”
But the hype gave people leeway to treat Kusama’s work superficially. In the catalogue for the show, art historian Alexander Dumbadze writes that the spaces are “perfect environments for individuals obsessed with seeing images of oneself and sharing those depictions with friends and strangers.”
“It’s our most photographed exhibit,” says Michael Olijnyk, co-director of the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh that has displayed two Kusama mirror rooms since 1996. With its combination of flattering lighting and mirrors, he says, “everyone looks so good in it.”
A 2013 study found that people who take a photo of an artwork don’t connect with it as deeply. But just because visitors might come away with a good Facebook profile pic doesn’t mean they aren’t also forging a connection with the art.
“It’s impossible to fully capture the experience of an infinity room through a photograph,” Chiu says. Staring into the artificial vastness of the space, she adds, “you realize how insignificant you are. You are just a speck in the cosmos.”
And there’s a notion of the infinite in social media, too: Just as an image can be replicated countless times online, “you can say the same thing about the physical experience of standing in a mirrored room. There’s no end in sight,” says Joanne Heyler, the Broad’s founding director. “I think people feel a sense of extension of the self.”
We take photos to remember experiences that move us deeply. This might be one of them. Being in the room, Chiu says, is “a profound meditative experience. . . . It’s something you experience alone.”
At the Hirshhorn, visitors are allowed only about 30 seconds in each of the six mirror rooms, which are the size of a small bedroom. It seems brief, but when those doors close behind you, Chiu says, “what is only 10 seconds feels like 10 minutes. You lose all sense of time.”
The Hirshhorn has paid a lot of attention to how best to move people through the exhibition without causing a selfie bottleneck at every room. Aside from Kusama’s mirror rooms and her “Obliteration Room” (another frequently photographed work that invites visitors to cover every surface of an all-white room in colorful polka-dot stickers), the artist’s paintings — some of which have never before been seen in the United States — will be on display. The museum has trained 120 new guides to help visitors navigate the space and enforce the time limits in each of the mirror rooms. Outside the museum, there’s an enclosed space to keep those waiting in line warm and dry, as well as a pop-up Dolcezza cafe so guests can stay caffeinated. And for those who hate queuing, the museum is offering a limited-time $50 membership that allows one person and a guest to skip the line at any time.
But the problem with talking about the selfies, the lines and the way people experience Kusama’s work is that those conversations threaten to overtake the discussion of the work itself. It doesn’t help that the show has barely opened and some Facebook and Instagram users are already getting Kusama fatigue. The Kusama selfie is becoming a visual cliche.
“These infinity mirror rooms tend to be, I think, mistakenly read as spectacles,” Yoshitake says. “The idea that these are instantaneous kind of spectacular experiences — no one’s saying that they’re not, but they also have a very grounded history.”
Besides, museums are no longer in the business of telling people how to experience a particular work of art. They’re just glad to see people engaging with it.
“Let’s have a little more faith in the artwork,” Heyler says. “The Kusama infinity mirror rooms are not the first time in art history that artwork has been subject to a popular misconception or interpretation of the work that is not exactly what the artist fully intended.”
So, taking photos is welcomed (use #infinitekusama). Still, the Hirshhorn hopes that after you take your picture, you’ll put the phone away to reflect.
“If you go in there and take a photograph and then leave, you’re not going to be able to experience it,” Chiu says. “You basically have to put down your phone in order to immerse yourself.”
So when the door shuts behind you in the mirror room, go ahead and take that selfie, but use the remainder of your time to search that infinite horizon for whatever it is you’re looking for: humility, awe, obliteration. You get only 30 seconds. Make them count.
Every visitor needs a timed ticket to visit the Yayoi Kusama show at the Hirshhorn. The free tickets are released online at hirshhorn.si.edu every Monday at noon for each subsequent week. If you can’t snag a ticket online, you can take a chance on snagging one of the limited number of walk-up passes available at the museum starting at 10 each morning.
● Visitors are limited to four passes a person and they’re valid for entry only at the designated time. The museum encourages guests to arrive 30 minutes before the time on the pass.
● Don’t want to wait in line? Members of the Hirshhorn can skip the queue. The museum is offering a limited-time $50 membership that allows one person and a guest to skip the line at any time. Members should present their card to the front desk to receive their passes.
● Because the wait may be long, the Hirshhorn has taken extra steps to keep Kusama fans happy. The museum has installed a heated outdoor waiting area and is opening a pop-up Dolcezza cafe.
● Once you’ve entered the exhibition space, know that your time in the infinity mirror rooms will be brief. To keep the lines moving, each guest is allowed only about 30 seconds in each room. You’re allowed to go into the rooms with another person, but it is recommended that you experience them alone. Visitors who have mobility constraints that prevent them from entering the rooms can experience some of them through a virtual reality headset.
● Take advantage of the free lockers on the museum’s lower level. If you carry a lot of stuff into the rooms, it will distract you from the experience and might ruin the simplicity of your photos.
● Selfies and other photographs are allowed, but selfie sticks are prohibited.
Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors Through May 14 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. 202-633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu. Free, but timed tickets required.