Standing in line for the Yayoi Kusama exhibition outside of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, you begin to notice a few things. One, the wind coming off the Hudson is blisteringly cold. Two, you’ve begun to lose feeling in both of your hands. And three, the average age of everyone waiting patiently to get in seems more appropriate for a club in the Meatpacking District on a Friday night. Far from your geriatric retiree crowd hitting up the MET, the 84-year-old Kusama has some serious sway with the youngsters. And not to discount the significance of the work, but that reason is due in large part to Instagram.
Since opening November 8th, Kusama’s I Who Have Arrived in Heaven has drawn the New York City masses, all willing to wait in hour-plus lines to physically take part in the Kusama world. Though the comprehensive exhibition includes videos and large-scale paintings, its primary draw are two particular rooms: “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” and “Love Is Calling.”
Both works allow the viewers to walk inside their respective spaces, existing momentarily (a tightly monitored 40 seconds) in a parallel universe until a docent politely kicks you out and lets in the next round of defrosting patrons. “Infinity Mirrored Room” gives the illusion of endless space utilizing mirrors, water, and twinkling lights. “Love Is Calling” creates cartoonish stalactites and stalagmites out of polka dot-covered inflatables, which are then repeated endlessly in mirrored reflection. Remember Dumbo’s acid trip? It’s kind of like that.
Kusama’s catalogue of work is obsessive, repetitive, maddening, favoring the breathtakingly expansive and the frighteningly claustrophobic. It is both dreamscape and hellscape, its beauty kept in check an underlying quality of acute psychosis. The more you know about Kusama and her history of mental illness, her battles with depression, the more the work – despite its friendly colors or its literally inviting qualities – disturbs.
But to many, “Infinity Mirrored Room” and “Love is Calling” have simply become opportune times for Instagram photo ops, premium selfies with cultural cache. The work certainly lends itself to the medium. It has everything that the social media platform favors: loud, punchy colors; an escape from the ordinary; a crescendo of lights befitting a video post. In terms of visual value in the digital age, Kusama’s work has never been more appropriate or relevant. Doubtless even she could have anticipated that her art would perfectly compliment the Age of Narcissism.
When you take into consideration the 60k-plus posts tagged with some variation of Yayoi Kusama’s name or the endless number of photos taken at the David Zwirner Gallery, collectively as repetitive as Kusama’s own work, you have to start wondering if the draw would have been as big – or the lines as long – had Instagram not been such a driving force in the motives of young people today. The art world has certainly benefited from it; an in-demand exhibition has become as integral to a person’s Insta feed as a trip to Anguilla or a Yeezus concert.
The last two years have seen great success with sweeping, grandiose works of art. MoMA’s Rain Room and James Turrell at the Guggenheim were both big crowd pleasers in 2013. As a rule, the more interactive they are and the better they look on an iPhone screen, the bigger the appeal, especially amongst the young. Throw in some mirrors in there and – BAM! – you’ve got yourself a runaway hit. If the deluge of photos on Instagram is any indication, the numbers are up, but is the appreciation still there?
Interactive, large-scale works are certainly a treat – spoonfuls of sugar that go down easy and don’t cause that mind-numbing, tingling sensation caused by aggressive consideration. For even the most discerning aesthete, it’s hard not to enjoy pieces like “Infinity Mirrored Room” and “Love Is Calling.” Both mimic a sense of wonder that most have not felt since going to Disneyland for the first time as a child. That sense of wonder, that perfectly consuming otherworldliness, is due in large part to its interactive nature and, for better or worse, its selfie appeal.
The trend is disconcerting in that attention is taken off the artist — off the motives, the meaning — and focuses attention on the viewer. But art is meant to take you outside of yourself, and though Kusama invites you into a world that is distinctly hers, selfish beasts that we are, we can’t help but manipulate it, take it as our own, capture ourselves within it and upload it to our digital diary, crudely splattering it with hashtags and comments and emojis while we categorize it into folders of shared experience. Is this enjoyment of art for art’s sake? Or just another proverbial shot taken from an airplane window, screaming “Going there!” “Seen that!” “Me! Me! Me!.”?
Only this generation would find the most compelling motivation for partaking in one of the civilization’s most delicate and moving windows into human nature: Themselves.