Last Tuesday, as the sun sank below the curved rim of the Hirshhorn Museum roof, two things became evidently clear: 1. There are a crap-ton of Smithsonian employees, and 2. All of them are seriously captivated by Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. When I arrived at 5:45, the line already wrapped almost two full spirals around the museum’s circular base. Despite rain, darkness, and the potential for a 2 hour wait or longer, the line grew. According to a friendly, if overwhelmed, visitor services staff member inside, 1,000 people had been let in by 8 pm, and the remaining crowds with no hope of entrance before the extended closing time of 8:30 pm were so massive that an additional estimated 1,200 were turned away.
While few were surprised by the promises of unprecedented demand and epic attendancemaj to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, resulting in the ongoing need for timed entry passes since its September opening, the demand for Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is an unexpected, but welcomed surprise. The hype among D.C.-based museum professionals is that it was a major coup for the Hirshhorn Museum, rather than MoMA or Mass MoCA, to snag an east coast slot on the exhibition’s tour, and the local response has certainly reflected this sentiment–timed entry passes for last week were nabbed off the Hirshhorn website in under a minute.
So when the Smithsonian emailed its employees advertising two different time slots open exclusively to Smithsonian badge holders and one guest, our hearts leapt–rumors of unavoidable crowds and the impossibility of getting out of work at the times when passes were available were SOLVED. But on Tuesday night, it felt like every single person in DC in possession of a Smithsonian badge decided to brave the raindrops for a glimpse of the magic Kusama’s whimsical aesthetic promised.
After buzzy conversation and lots of standing, at 7:30, we were in. I normally have few expectations of what I will see upon entering an exhibition, but this is no ordinary museum experience. Infinity Mirrors has dominated art news for months, and since the exhibition opened, Instagram photos, Snapchat stories, and the continuous stream of both critical and citizen reviews has eaten up my feed on every social channel. I knew there were mirror rooms, and I was there to see them with my own eyes. Instead, I was met with this:
Yayoi Kusama is an 83-year-old avant-garde female artist from Japan. She sees the world in ways foreign to most, making her an outsider, an observer and interpreter of our world. She has a dual fascination with and fear of penises and phallic objects, and thus determines to surround herself with them, covering some of her works with incalculable numbers of pointy, squishy spikes.
I spent the remainder of my time in the exhibit either making strategic scheduling decisions based on the rooms my guest and I considered ‘top priority,’ or standing in lines for those rooms. It was fascinating watching visitors interacting with the exhibit, navigating their desires to both see as much of the work as possible and also experience (photograph) as many of the blockbuster rooms as their phones’ storage would handle.
I felt woefully disconnected with the ‘story’ of the exhibit, forced to skip over nearly every label. Normally this would render me unable to achieve the ‘aha moment’ I normally enjoy from completing a focused, analytical museum visit. But the “Obliteration Room” prevents anyone from leaving without that bookend moment of satisfaction. Ridding myself of every sticker on my sticker pack and placing my final dot-shaped mark on a hatbox was quite the final engagement moment. Nina Simon would have been proud.
Despite the distractions, the frustrations, the damp socks, and the backwards way in which I experienced it, Kusama’s work is so skillful in its ability to envelope the entire conscience in her polka-dotted inner sanctum that it still left me feeling alive, inspired and more creative than when I entered. During my short visit, I was able to experience two of the gorgeous infinity rooms: “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies,” and “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins.”
“Fireflies” was much more active than I imagined. The lights to not gently glow – they carry on a strong, slow-motion strobe that I imagine takes many visitors by surprise. The ever-changing nature of the lights makes it almost impossible to get ‘the’ picture in this room – an incredibly clever work-around that made me giggle. In the age of Instagram, art continues to defy the camera’s ability to capture it.
“Pumpkins” was making its triumphant comeback from closure during the first week of the exhibit, after a visitor interaction with the work that resulted in shattered acrylic. Triumphant, it was. The yellow-orange glow of the pumpkins, and their placement on the floor and subsequent reflection the ceiling, feels like you have been placed carefully between two warm blankets. It is both mysterious and magical, eerie and comforting. Solitary and communal. Kusama loves pumpkins, and her pumpkin room expresses that love in a visceral, physical way. My memories of the room include the actual feeling of warmth.
My Smithsonian night visit was not enough – I skipped past several of the other rooms in search of my destinations. I selectively experienced. That is not the way I feel exhibits should be seen. It is, however, how many visitors choose to look at art. And in the end, to be unabashedly cliche, is it not better to have seen some art, than never to have seen art at all?