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A Night With Yayoi Kusama’s Die-hard, Selfie-taking Fans

Our reporter visited the public opening of Yayoi Kusama’s new exhibition at David Zwirner to ask fans why they’d waited hours for a 30-second glimpse at one of her world-famous infinity rooms.

Installation view, Yayoi Kusama: EVERY DAY I PRAY FOR LOVE, David Zwirner, New York, 2019 (Courtesy David Zwirner)

David Zwirner Gallery’s anticipated opening of its second Yayoi Kusama blockbuster exhibition fell on a brutally cold autumn evening this past weekend when temperatures in New York dropped to 40 degrees. And yet, hundreds of intrepid fans started queuing up hours before the opening to experience the wonder of the artist’s popular Infinity Mirrored Rooms. The line stretched along West 20th Street in Chelsea, all the way between 10th and 11th avenues, and some waited up to four hours to finally get in.

Spanning the gallery’s two floors, EVERY DAY I PRAY FOR LOVE presents 60  works by the 90-years-old artist, including new paintings in her My Eternal Soul series; a sprawling stainless steel installation (Clouds, 2019); a series of colorful, biomorphic sculptures made from stuffed fabric; and a perforated black-and-white version of the artist’s iconic dotted pumpkins. In a darkened “black-box” room on the second floor, a glowing LED ladder — “Ladder to Heaven” (2019) — is installed between two mirror bases to create the optical illusion of infinite depth and height. But the main attraction was the latest edition of the artist’s Infinity Mirrored Room, titled “DANCING LIGHTS THAT FLEW UP TO THE UNIVERSE.” It’s in a small cube that once entered, turns completely dark. Glittery LED lights then start flashing and changing colors from white to red as one’s field of vision is splintered into endless refractions that create a new, infinite horizon. The magic of this installation is undeniable, even to the gimmick-averse eye. Visitors were given no more than 30 seconds inside the room, due to the seemingly infinite lines outside.

Some 2,000 people visited the exhibition on the opening night, according to Zwirner Gallery (All images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
The line stretched long West 20th Street in Chelsea, all the way between 10th and 11th avenues

To answer the overwhelming demand, the gallery opened its doors to the public two hours before the exhibition’s scheduled opening at 6pm and kept them open for almost an hour past the original closing time of 8pm. Zwirner’s last Kusama survey in 2017 drew 75,000 visitors in about a month and a half. This time, the gallery expects more than 100,000 visitors during the show’s run, which will end on December 14. Some 2,000 people visited the exhibition on  its opening night, the gallery told Hyperallergic in an email on Monday.

Kusama’s iconic pumpkin
Kusama’s reflective stainless steel Clouds (2019) on Zwirner’s first floor

The long lines outside, it must be noted, were just for people who were interested in experiencing the Infinity Mirrored Room. Those who were willing to forego the experience had the option of skipping the line to see the rest of the exhibition. But few were ready to make that compromise.

At 4:45pm, Sarah, Liz, and Tahmina, three New Yorkers in their early 20s who work in different marketing jobs, had already been waiting in line for half an hour. “Because of the Instagram age, it’s necessary that there’s always going to be a line, so you might as well wait for it if you like Kusama,” said Sarah, who reported having waited an hour in line to see the artist’s last exhibition at Zwirner in 2017. Liz, another devout Kusama fan, has attended previous Kusama exhibitions in Paris and Copenhagen. In explaining Kusama’s appeal to the masses, Liz said, “It’s very interactive art, compared to everything else; it’s fun, it’s an experience.” When asked if they are planning on taking selfies with the work, the three nodded in unison. “We’re going to capture the art as best as we can, incorporating ourselves into it,” said Liz. “I think it’s good for the artist,” added Sarah, while also emphasizing the importance of absorbing the art without a phone camera. “We’re Gen Z-bordering Millenials, a mix of being on our phone and not being on them,” she explained.

James Fletcher with his mother Gretchen inside the infinity room. “I almost returned to the womb,” the son said.
Valentine Kim, a 4-year-old, has been a dedicated Kusama fan since age 2.

“Taking selfies is the whole point of coming here,” said Kieran, a finance associate who brought two friends from Philadelphia to see the exhibition. Kieran became a Kusama fan after seeing the artist’s work at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles last year, but after half an hour of waiting, the three decided to call it quits. “It’s too cold,” Kieran said. “I’ll have to come back on a regular day.”

Inside, David Zwirner — founder of the eponymous gallery — appeared restless as he inspected the massive volume of visitors queuing outside the gallery. “I’m worried about having enough time today to get everybody inside and make sure that nobody waits in vain,” he told Hyperallergic. “We’re getting used to the logistics here, it’s not the usual gallery experience for us, these are the early days,” he said and added that extra docents were hired for the exhibition. When asked to explain Kusama’s wide popularity, he said, “There is a kind of honesty in the work, almost naiveté, that just resonates with all kinds of people. It’s unique. There are very few artists that have that touch, and she’s a very special one.”

Ashey Benner (left) and her mother, Micah Moore; two bonafide Kusama fans.
Installation view of the second floor gallery
Yayoi Kusama, “SOULS OF WOMEN THAT CONTINUE FOREVER (R/B)” (2019)

James and Gretchen Fletcher, a mother and son from Florida, spoke to Hyperallergic after experiencing the Infinity Mirrored Room. “I experienced a moment of infinity,” said James. “I was very moved […] My mom and I felt like we were one, I almost returned to the womb,” he joked, making his mother laugh out loud. “I felt lost at first when the lights went out, and I was afraid to move,” said Gretchen, who dressed in polka dots for the event.

Fletcher was one of many visitors who attended the opening in Kusama-inspired outfits. Most charming was Valentine Kim, a 4-year-old who went full-on-Kusama with a red wig and polka-dot dress. Valentine became a big fan of the artist after visiting her last show at Zwirner two years ago, according to her mother, Jayne. “It was nighttime and the stars were dancing around me,” Valentine described her experience in the infinity chamber. The 4-year-old brought with her a dotted pumpkin that she painted with her mother and a book about the artist which she described as her “favorite book in the world.”

Two of many selfie-takers at the opening night
Yayoi Kusama, “Ladder to Heaven” (2019)
“There is a kind of honesty in the work, almost naiveté, that just resonates with all kinds of people,” said David Zwirner about Kusama’s work.

Little Valentine was in tough competition with Micha Moore and Ashely Benner, a mother and daughter from New Jersey, who are both bonafide Kusama fans. The two travel across the country and the world to see as many Kusama exhibitions as they can. Just last week, they were in Miami to see the artist’s current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Last year, they drove to Cleveland to see another Kusama show, and in 2017 they attended the previous exhibition at Zwirner. That’s not all: Next week, the two will travel to Arkansas to see another one, and in February of next year, they will visit Tokyo, Japan to check off a Kusama retrospective there. “What I love about [Kusama] is not just the artwork that she produces, but also the fact that someone who is not only older but also suffering from mental issues could be so revered and appreciated by others,” Micah explained. “That’s a big deal when there is a stigma associated with mental illness, especially in America,” she added. “Her work shows that you can find something valuable in every human being.” Moore, a photographer who specializes in capturing people jumping in the air, was wearing a shirt with a Kusama print while Ashely donned a classic black-and-white polka dot dress.

Kusama has lived as a voluntary resident in the Seiwa Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Tokyo, since 1977. The artist is known to leave the hospital mostly just to work at her studio, which she situated a few blocks away.

A short poem she wrote for the exhibition, printed on a poster for the show, lends an explanation to the artist’s singular appeal beyond the Instagram-ability of her art. The poem reads:

My entire life has been painted in these paintings.

Every day, any day.

I will never cease dedicating my whole life to my love

for the universe.

 

Oh my dearest art.

 

With the challenge of creating

new art, I work as if dying

these works are my everything.

At 7:30pm, Sarah, Liz, and Tahmina were still waiting in line after two and a half hours in the biting cold, not sure if they would make it inside. “I’m going to argue my way in, I don’t care,” said Liz, who complained that her toes were freezing. Tahmina reported suffering from lower back pain. “If we don’t make it inside, it’s going to be very disappointing,” Sarah said. “Heartbreaking,” Liz added.

The magic of this installation is undeniable, even to the gimmick-averse eye
Visitors were given no more than 30 seconds inside the room, due to the near-infinite lines outside
One more shot of Valentine, the indisputable star of the evening

The three finally made it inside just a little after 8pm. At that point, the gallery had closed the rest of the exhibition, admitting only visitors who had waited for hours to see the infinity room.

While Sarah and Tahmina looked exhilarated on their way out of the infinity room, Liz seemed disappointed. “It looks the same as the one in Copenhagen,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s a beautiful moment no matter what, I just wish maybe she [Kusama] could do it differently in different places.”

The three agreed that the experience was much too short to absorb the work. “We’re guilty of that too because we go in with our phone to take pictures,” Liz summarized the problem. “When you actually want to put your phone down and enjoy the moment is when you have to leave.”

Correction 11/13/19 2:24pm: The name of one gallery visitor, Tahmina, was misspelled in the original article. We regret the error.

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