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Kusama at Tate: Is It Worth The Hype?

Roar writer Camilla Alcini on Yayoi Kusama’s latest exhibition at Tate Modern.

Few names in contemporary art have reached the popularity of Yayoi Kusama. Painter, performance artist, film-maker, designer, poet and novelist, the Japanese woman behind the Infinity mirrors that famously arrived at Tate Modern for an exhibition last spring is all that. And probably more.

In fact, Time Magazine named her “one of the most influential people in the world” back in 2016, and two years later the movie “Kusama: Infinity” was released globally.

But this is only a small taste of things to come. For decades, unprecedented crowds queued for hours to see her famous installations, while sometimes being allowed in only for a few minutes (if not seconds: the David Zwirner gallery in New York allowed 45 seconds time slots to each viewer in 2013, while the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC granted half a minute).

Kusama is back in London and sold out until March 2022

Knowing all of this, it is no surprise that when Tate announced a year long exhibition of Kusama to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the public went crazy. The exhibition opened on May 11, 2021 and is now sold out until March 31, 2022. That leaves approximately three months to try and see Kusama at Tate before it’s off in June.

That sounds like mission impossible. The real question, however, is not how to get tickets, but rather: is it worth the hype?

For one thing, the immense social media popularity of Kusama’s work make the answer to this question a sharp ‘yes’. And while we can debate whether social media should be allowed to give value to art… they do. Curators and artists all over the world aim at offering the most Instagram friendly exhibitions, because that is what attracts spectators. Art lovers will always be there, but this social turn in the museum proposals ensured that even those who are not frequent visitors will buy their tickets.

Kusama, with her famous polka dots and infinity mirrors, was Instagram friendly before Instagram even existed. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, she was grew up part of a wealthy, rural family and received a traditional education. Her passion, though, was avant-garde, so she flew to New York in the 1950s, and that is where and when her art finally flourished. The fast-moving scene of the American city allowed her to break free from the social conservatism that inhibited her childhood. She developed her signature technique of methodical repetition, which for the artist is sort of therapeutic and cathartic and that the public immediately loved.

The exhibition at Tate Modern

The exhibition at Tate features two Infinity Rooms: “The Chandelier of Grief” and “The Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled With the Brilliance of Life”. In the first work, an ornate chandelier with flickering lights rotates from the ceiling. The spectator’s reflection repeats itself infinitely, as for the chandelier’s, and a scripture invites you to “Forget yourself. Become one with eternity. Become part of your environment”. In the other Infinity Room, you’re invited to walk over a shallow pool, while infinite dots surrounding you change colours at the rhythm of a heart beat. It is hard to know where you end, and when it begins, which is precisely Kusama’s aim.

Besides the Infinity Room, there are other art works such as a sculpture “The Universe as seen from the stairway to heaven”, videos of Kusama’s performance titled “Walking Piece” and “Mirror Performance”, and finally a selection of portraits of the artist by the photographer Eikoh Hosoe.

The whole exhibition lasts approximately 15 minutes if you read the captions and queue twice for an Infinity Room as I did.

The short experience makes it difficult to say if Kusama at Tate is worth the hype. You would expect that the duration is compensated by the intensity of the experience, but nonetheless, it is difficult to immerse yourself in the Infinity Room when you have a timer to your experience. While the time you are allowed is enough to take a picture, is it enough to create the special connection that the artist imagined?

“I, Kusama, (who have lived for years in my famous specially-built room entirely covered by mirrors) have opened up a world of fantasy and freedom”, she once declared, but this world of fantasy and freedom is something we can only imagine when we are queuing for the Infinity Room and something we wish we had more time to savour when we exit.

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