#Genius. #Beautiful. #Worththewait. #Howdoesshedoit. #Kusamaismyqueen.
These were just some of the Instagram hashtags used to describe 88-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s new exhibition at David Zwirner’s two Chelsea galleries on West 19th Street. Many of the dozens lined up outside for as long as three hours on a chilly November day said they had been drawn to the show by social media. “We’re here for the Instagram!” said Lauren Wagner, 24.
The star attractions were two of Kusama’s iconic, interactive “Infinity” mirror rooms titled “Let’s Survive Forever” and “Longing for Eternity.” Visitors like Wagner were thinking strategically about taking selfies inside. “I’m saving my phone battery,” she said.
Hopeful gallery goers waited in lines that extended all the way down West 19th Street, wrapping around the exterior of the galleries and spilling over on to Tenth Avenue. Some galleries discourage photography and selfie-taking but Zwirner seems to encourage it, sparking a debate on whether Kusama’s Chelsea exhibition is drawing more selfie-seekers than art aficionados.
A third Kusama exhibition, “Infinity Nets,” at Zwirner’s Upper East Side gallery, contains paintings and has been drawing smaller crowds. Many more fans lined up at the artist’s “Festival of Life” exhibition in Chelsea featuring her mirror rooms, larger-than-life flower sculptures and a selection of paintings from her “My Eternal Soul” series. The gallery, which has hosted two previous Kusama exhibitions: “Give me Love” in 2015 and “I who have arrived in Heaven” in 2013, is now using its own hashtags and handle for this latest exhibition: #yayoikusama, #festivaloflife and @davidzwirner.
Many visitors said they had initially heard about the exhibition through social media.
“Mostly Instagram, I think a lot of people are on the Instagram,” said Vail Nuguid, 25, an architect from New Jersey who was waiting in line. “But Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat now too.” Nuguid plans to upload her pictures online. “If I get any good ones — I heard we have a limited time to do it!” Gallery staffers count down the exact amount of time visitors can stay in each exhibition room before ushering them onward, even giving 10-second countdowns while visitors feverishly scramble to take one last selfie.
It’s an unlikely fan base for the eccentric artist. Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama moved to New York in 1958 and met Georgia O’Keeffe, won praise from Donald Judd, and is said to have influenced Andy Warhol. But in 1977, Kusama returned to Tokyo and checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she has lived since. She is reported to suffer from hallucinations, severe dissociative disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder but continued creating art at her nearby studio in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Decades later, her online popularity has exploded, with #yayoikusama hashtagged over 500, 000 times on Instagram. A Tokyo museum devoted solely to her work opened earlier this year.
As they waited in line, visitors checked their social media accounts for updates. “We’ve been watching it live on Twitter and they update it and they say it’s a two-hour long wait or longer, but it really hasn’t been that bad,” said Joel Brandon, 38, who had been in line for an hour. “We are really excited to get inside.”
Kusama’s appeal appears to cross generations. Grace O’ Donnell, 66, a retired speech therapist, was entranced. “The rooms were amazing, cosmic,” she said. “When I was looking at that box, I could easily sit there for a much longer time than they’ll allow you.” As for the paintings, she said they reminded her of a scene in a detective novel she’s reading “where there’s this old pipe and it’s filled with bugs and creatures.”
“I wish we weren’t rushed,” said her friend, Irene Homa, 70, who does advertising for a newspaper. While looking at the paintings, she said, “I wonder what her mind is like to actually do that.”
Some older visitors at the exhibition said they had heard about it from their children. Lina Batallones, 77, and her friend Juliet Kong, 65, had taken the subway from Queens and walked for 45 minutes trying to locate Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery, on the recommendation of Batallones’s daughter who had seen an exhibition in Singapore and told her mother it was “fabulous.”
Instagram users of #yayoikusama are avidly uploading pictures from Kusama’s various exhibitions, using the hashtag to share their thoughts. Many complained about their experience being too short with comments such as, “Queued 2 hours to get inside this infinity room for only 20 seconds, “15 seconds to shoot” and “45 seconds of awesome.”
Waiting seems to be part of the show. There are lines at the entrance of each exhibit room. There, groups of visitors are briefly warned that they are allowed no more than one minute per room and are given white shoe protectors to prevent scuffing the floors.
The first exhibit room, “Let’s Survive Forever,” features end-to-end mirrors with silver orbs suspended in air, creating the impression of an infinite number of orbs. The second room, “Longing For Eternity” is black with a wide, boxy pillar in the center that has three circular cut-outs, all at different heights and on different sides through which viewers can see a dizzying array of technicolor lights in hexagonal patterns. The third room, “With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever,” was a decadent display of towering white tulip sculptures with large red polka dots.
“It seems like it’s child’s work but at the same time it’s out of the box and no one is doing something like that, and specifically the mirror rooms,” said Renata Coelho, 33, who was visiting from Portugal. “It’s just about the experience.”