Yayoi Kusama, a woman nearing 90 who is one of the world’s most popular artists, will have a major retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden next year, the museum recently announced.
I should be thrilled. Instead, I’m bracing for the possibility that I may never make it up the museum’s narrow single-file escalators to see it, all because Kusama is an Instagram darling.
The Japanese-born eccentric has been filling museums and galleries for decades with immersive polka-dot crazyscapes and lighted, kaleidoscopic mirrored rooms that evoke a mind on too many hallucinogens.
The Hirshhorn’s retrospective, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” opening in February 2017, will feature several of these large installations, including one from 1965. But it’s only recently that technology has caught up with the artist, and only in the past couple of years that those who have followed her career, and the interlopers who know nothing about her, have grown all too aware that everyone looks good in a Kusama.
With Kusama, the selfie ops are endless. And so are the lines to see her art.
And I’m convinced that one is causing the other.
Five hours. That’s how long a text message from L.A.’s Broad museum told Violetta Markelou that she would wait to see one of Kusama’s works, “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” in March. The twinkling disco ball of a scene caused all kinds of headache and heartache as exhibit hogs stopped to photograph themselves from every conceivable angle, with flash and without.
Two hours. That’s how long Markelou, a Washington photographer, and her husband lasted before giving up.
Markelou is happy to hear that Washington will have its own mirrored room. (Actually, it will have six.) Maybe this time, she says, she’ll actually get in.
But she has some advice for the Hirshhorn: Install security guards. Set strict time limits in each room. “After three minutes,” she says, “you have to get out, because you can’t be in there all day. Then other people can’t experience it.”
Or the Hirshhorn could simply ban cellphones from the exhibition altogether. Musicians now frequently request that fans leave their phones in their pockets so that they can actually experience the music. At art exhibitions, couldn’t a camera-phone ban also help move the lines along? (And, yes, maybe deter those who are only in search of a good profile photo?)
The museum already “has the best minds at the Smithsonian working on crowd control,” says Glenn Dixon, a Hirshhorn spokesman. It has also already decided that it will allow photography in “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.”
“Being able to Instagram her work, at this stage in the game, is part of” the experience, says Dixon.
It is the appeal, the currency and the traffic-driver.
So say the curators of a number of exhibitions these days. At the Renwick, “Wonder” is a group show that begs to be shared on social media. Literally, it begs: “Photography Encouraged” signs are hung throughout.
The Hirshhorn opened up the doors to ’grammers in 2012 with “Suprasensorial,” its Ai Weiwei retrospective, and with Doug Aitken’s “Song 1,” all of which drew big crowds in what proved to be a watershed year for cameras in museums.
But we’re not that far removed from a time when whipping out your phone or digital camera in a museum gallery meant you were a Neanderthal. Security guards would yell at you to stop. And other visitors’ disapproving glances seemed to say, “What is wrong with you, dude?”
There was no snapping surreptitious photos at the National Gallery of Art’s Dan Flavin retrospective in 2004. Ditto for the museum’s memorable 2012 Joan Miró show. I don’t have a single snap of myself at either exhibition, but I remember them vividly.
I also remember seeing Kusama’s black-and-yellow polka-dotted inflatables fill part of the Kennedy Center in 2008 and soaking it up without having to wait for someone else to finish taking a photo.
These days, there are only a few scenarios in which photos aren’t allowed, says Dixon: when photographs, particularly flash photography, can potentially damage a work, and when lenders (and artists) are concerned about how their work appears on social media — namely, how much it is filtered and altered.
But allowing smartphone photography is becoming increasingly common. “With more contemporary work, and particularly with newer artists, [museums] just accept that that’s the way it’s going to be,” says Dixon.
As museum-goers, do we have to accept it, too?