Seeing Myself Through Yayoi Kusama: Like it or Not, the Selfie-Blockbuster is Here

The term blockbuster was probably first used to describe a museum exhibition in 1976, when throngs of visitors patiently waited in line to see the grandiose King Tut exhibition at the National Gallery. The show then toured the country and drew the astounding attendance of eight million people. What followed was a barrage of blockbusters over the years, usually featuring Impressionist painters, Van Gogh, Picasso, and the other “geniuses”—big names with big price tags, and nearly insurmountable insurance costs. (A recent exhibition in Cleveland with only thirteen Van Gogh paintings had an insurance value of more than a billion dollars.) If you’ve been to one of these shows, you know the game—it’s a slow crawl through a packed gallery, elbow-to-elbow with your fellow gawkers, all eagerly trying to spend a moment with a masterpiece.

But recently the blockbuster exhibition has been changing. Blockbusters are starting to be less about the treasures and more about the experience. These new blockbusters are usually highly immersive shows of dramatic spectacle that may also involve the procurement of the coveted “museum-selfie.” As the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) opens Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms, we have a front-row seat to this new beast (if you’ve managed to score a ticket). But perhaps more interestingly, we also get to watch how Instagram and the selfie directly affects museum culture, and how some aren’t too happy about it.

The influence of Instagram and the taking of selfies has steadily marched into the museum, just as it has previously marched into fine dining, concert-going, and basically everywhere else. Early signs of the influence of Instagram in museums include the Whitney literally begging teens to take selfies in their Jeff Koons show back in 2014, which gave way to exhibitions like Wonder at the Renwick Gallery in 2015, a show of spectacularly immersive installations just begging to be ’grammed (which drew more visitors in six weeks than it had hosted in the entire previous year).

But the queen of the museum-selfie is Yayoi Kusama—which you probably already knew unless you’ve been living under a rock. The Cleveland version of her widely acclaimed touring exhibition offers the opportunity to visit seven of her mirror rooms, including one exclusive to the CMA. While the exhibit also includes paintings, drawings, videos, and more, the mirror rooms are the stars of the show. These inauspicious, box-like structures contain limitless vistas of light, shape, color, and other surprises—all of which is punctuated with your own reflection, repeating ad infinitum into the distance. You only get to spend twenty to thirty seconds in this bliss before the door swings open, and light rushes in, abruptly ending your experience of infinity. So if you’re going to get that selfie, time is of the essence.

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (installation view),2016. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929). Wood, mirror, plastic, black glass, LED. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, and Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama

Along with the show came a slew of opinion about best practices for viewing a Kusama Infinity Room. A local critic tweeted dogmatically: “Go slow, don’t take photos.” Others chimed in, urging people to use their eyes, not their phones, including the curator of the show, Mika Yoshitake, who said she “would love for people to put their phones down and just experience it.” As I am writing this, there are currently about 73,000 images on Instagram with the CMA-promoted hashtag: #infinitekusama, nearly all selfies of some form.

Photo by the Author, at the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, c.2003, inside Yayoi Kusama’s Repetitive Vision

Back in 2003, armed with my very first digital camera, I saw my first Infinity Room when I visited the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. There you will find Kusama’s Repetitive Vision. Created in 1996, it’s still on display today. Entering the room was an entirely new experience for me, and while I felt a bit unsure (I luckily didn’t have a time limit), it was immediately clear what I wanted to do. I took a picture of myself, holding my new camera, repeating into the distance—the urge to do so seemed implicit.

Photo by the Author, inside Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929). Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water; 287.6 x 415.3 x 415.3 cm (113 1/4 x 163 1/2 x 163 1/2 in). Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama

I did the same the other day in several (but not all) of the rooms at the CMA. While my selfie-taking-skill and the technology has increased vastly, my experience was much the same. I saw myself through Kusama’s world—part of her cosmos, part of the terror of being insignificant, part of everything. And with a camera, with an image of the moment, the infinity merely increases—the picture in the picture in the picture, etc.

Installation view of Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (1965) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929). Sewn stuffed cotton fabric, board, and mirrors. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by Cathy Carver

If you look through the catalog for the Kusama exhibition, you won’t find a single selfie. There are many photos of Kusama inside her rooms, but all were apparently taken by someone else. A photo of an Infinity Room without a person in it looks strange to me. They look so terribly empty, sad even—but definitely unfinished. In a sense, the room needs to be activated by the viewer to do its work, and to get a photograph of that view, you basically have to take a selfie.

The fact that these rooms are mirrored naturally invites self-imaging. Museum visitors, while standing face to face with their own images, might feel compelled to capture and also share that moment of unexpected self-discovery. This is much more than just narcissism, as most selfie-bashing critics reductively assume. Museums are no longer spaces in which to simply experience art, they can also be spaces in which to have art experiences. Accordingly, curatorial choices are now geared toward encouraging such encounters—for example, the upcoming Andy Warhol show at the Whitney is already being billed as a blockbuster with the aim of “reinventing the artist for the Instagram age.” The director said, “It’s going to be selfie-central.”

But why is this simple act so fraught with criticism? The museum-selfie has become the subject of much debate, but I tend to agree with writers like Merray Gerges who see through the critical unease to the real issue at hand. For nigh hundreds of years, the establishment has dictated the proper way to view art, clearly aiming to keep the museum a safe, insular temple for the cultural elite. In short, for privileged people (read: wealthy white males). This process continues today, as intellectuals scoff at the long lines, the posing, the hashtags—they would rather keep the museum deep and quiet, and not surprisingly, the selfie has no place in this structure. Selfie-shaming is, at its core, not only classist and misogynist, but racist. Selfies are crucial methods for people of color to situate themselves within largely white art institutions, and that is simply a fact (just look at Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s recent appropriation of the Louvre, which aptly deploys a similar strategy).

The selfie-blockbuster takes fine art a step closer to being more inclusive—granted a small one—and while critics may scoff, the museum world is taking note of this shifting cultural landscape. Because along with the selfies often comes the social media share and, ultimately, free promotion for the show. The recent press preview for Kusama at CMA included “Influencers” along with the press, in hopes that their photos would circulate to their followers and garner even larger attendance numbers. Larger attendance equals more selfies, which equals more posts, more shares, ad infinitum. Instagram isn’t killing museum culture, clearly its only reinventing it – and I for one think that’s a good thing.