Photos | Courtesy of the AGO

The hype surrounding Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors

After a debut in Washington, DC and exhibitions at galleries in Seattle and Los Angeles, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors will be on display in Toronto at the AGO beginning March 3rd. Advanced ticket sales began online on January 16th, with the first batch of tickets quickly selling out. As with any high-demand event, tickets are now being resold on second-party websites for up to $100. This response from the public is unusual in comparison to past exhibits at the AGO, so why is Kusama’s art garnering such an extreme reaction? 

One such reason could be the novelty of the exhibit. Infinity Mirrors includes Kusama’s paintings and pastel drawings, but the main attraction consists of six themed rooms filled with colourful LED lights, polka-dotted sculptures, and mirror-paneled walls that create the illusion of infinity. Kusama offers an experience that is inherently different from the traditional exhibits that we are used to seeing. According to Allison Peck, the Communications Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington where the exhibit debuted, “It’s very different from a normal high-visitation exhibition, where visitors can move freely through the space. Each room is a contained experience unto itself.”  

Although visitors are only allowed 30-45 seconds inside each infinity room (a restriction imposed by Kusama herself), only two to four people are permitted into a single room at once. The person limit allows for a private experience. Some of my favourite interactions with art have been at off-peak hours, when I could really immerse myself without being rushed or distracted by the people around me: you know that thousands, or even millions, of people have seen the piece you’re looking at, but for that brief moment it belongs to you.  

So do the prescribed limits allow for a more personal engagement with the art, or will people merely be utilizing their designated 30-45 seconds for photos? Many art exhibits prohibit photography, but the nature of Kusama’s work instead promotes documentation. Due to the short period of time people are given inside each room—if they can even manage to purchase tickets—capturing each room in a photo is the logical solution. The infinity rooms are reduced to an image—one that can be endlessly consumed by the viewer and shared on social media.   

Gloria Sutton, an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History and New Media at Northeastern University, claims that “most visitors endure the hours-long wait for the express purpose of procuring a self-portrait with a smartphone inside this uniquely mirrored room, which, in effect, renders a digital image within a structure that is itself an infinity of images. In fact, the desire to take such an ‘image within an image’ after seeing one online is the reason many visitors come to the museum in the first place.” Through platforms like Instagram, Kusama’s work has reached us in Toronto, and we too want to capture similar images for our social media pages.  

The popularity of her work for its aesthetic value has surely been heightened by social media, however, the excitement surrounding Kusama’s art has been consistently strong for the last 20 years. As Peck states, “This uptick of interest is part of a recent rediscovering of her work, which started in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When she returned to Japan in the 1970s after working in NYC in the 1960s, she was not a popular figure. It was only later that she started becoming a true cultural phenomenon.” 

The high demand for tickets also prevents a passive public. To see Kusama, you can’t just stroll into the AGO once your Instagram feed has been inundated with friends’ photos of Infinity Mirrors and join in. 

If all the hype simply does boil down to a desire to consume the image of the art, rather than the art itself, that may not necessarily be a negative phenomenon. Any interaction with art should be a personal experience, designed by the viewer. Whether you want to immerse yourself in an exhibit while you’re there or experience it through your images once you’ve left—that’s up to you.