Yayoi Kusama artwork
Alex Wong; Brendan Smialowski / Getty

An Artist for the Instagram Age

Is Yayoi Kusama’s new participatory-art exhibit about seeking profound experiences—or posting selfies?

Well before the Yayoi Kusama show opened in Washington, D.C., I heard from total strangers that I would not be able to get in. I heard about the lines, the waits, the tickets that would be released in batches every Monday at noon, the need to make arrangements now now now. The craze was on, though the exhibition was still more than a month away. “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” was starting its multicity tour at the Hirshhorn Museum. The circus was coming to town.

Back in January, I knew that this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see those half-dozen mirrored rooms—those infinite dreamworlds for one, created by Yayoi Kusama, who is 88 and lives by choice in a mental hospital in Japan—needed to be on my art bucket list.

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As I look over my ever-growing list, I see that it is chock-full of certain kinds of art—site-specific art, participatory art, relational art, land art, art that is hard to get to or hard to get into. Art that I’ve been told I absolutely, positively must experience in person before I die. Art that I can see only alone or in a small group. Art that will bring out in me an exquisite existential alertness. Art that I will complete by simply being present— art that without me is nothing.

Much of the art on my list is designed to involve the observer in ways that no mere gallery-going ever could—and indeed makes the blockbuster exhibitions of the 20th century (Picasso, King Tut, the treasure houses of Britain) seem quaint. Yes, the long lines are still part of the experience, but new elements have been added. Cameras are often allowed, which opens the door to Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media. The visitor’s encounter is, in many cases, time-limited. Most important, many of the works on my bucket list invite the spectator to engage more personally with the art.

What’s that you say? You don’t have an art bucket list? Well, you can borrow mine. First, though, I should warn you that you have already missed many of the unmissable experiences I have had on my list.

Take New York alone. Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a giant sphinx made of sugar, topped with a mammy head, is no longer at the Domino Sugar refinery on the East River (which has since been demolished). You can no longer see Cate Blanchett’s dramatic recitations of various art manifestos at the Park Avenue Armory. (However, her performance can now be seen as a movie, Manifesto.) You can no longer pay your respects, at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue, to Sophie Calle’s dead mother by watching an 11-minute video of her death. Marina Abramović, the performance artist, is no longer available to sit with you at MoMA. You missed staying dry (or getting wet) in the Rain Room while MoMA had it. (Good news, though: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently acquired it for its permanent collection, so you might have another chance.) You cannot float nude in salt water at Manhattan’s New Museum in an “Experience” designed by Carsten Höller. Rirkrit Tiravanija isn’t making Thai curry for visitors at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea or at MoMA anymore. The chance to walk through Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s orange Gates in Central Park has long since passed. Sigh.

But that’s half the fun! The fact that some folks have managed to make the scene while others get left out in the cold is integral to the excitement of participatory art. The thrill is akin to exotic travel, or getting to see Hamilton. Because not everyone who wants the experience actually gets the experience, these works, even if their intentions and messages are democratic, tend to become exclusive affairs. As the art historian Claire Bishop notes in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, one paradox of this sort of participatory work “is that in intensifying convivial relations for a small group of people … it produces greater exclusivity vis-à-vis the general public.”

But cheer up, general public! Plenty of other can’t-miss art experiences aren’t going anywhere. I’m thinking of land art and site-specific art. Robert Smithson, for instance, created Spiral Jetty (1970) on the Great Salt Lake, in Utah, by arranging large rocks in a huge spiral. Michael Heizer made Double Negative (1969–70) near Overton, Nevada, by cutting two huge trenches into a mesa there. Walter De Maria composed The Lightning Field (1977) in the high desert of New Mexico by planting a vast field of 400 tall, lightning-attracting poles in a grid pattern. For the people who manage to make these treks, the dividend is not only the awesome sense of landscape transformed into art but also the keen realization that you and your journey are part of it.

If you can’t reach those places, don’t worry. There are other site-specific works that occupy whole rooms (De Maria’s Earth Room in New York), buildings (the Rothko Chapel in Houston), islands (the Benesse Art Site in Japan dominates Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea), and towns. For instance, much of Marfa, Texas, is devoted to the minimalist art of Donald Judd (known for his aluminum-and-concrete boxes), Carl Andre (known for his metal floor tiles, which visitors are allowed to walk on), and Dan Flavin (known for his arrays of fluorescent bulbs). Like old World’s Fair sites, these places and works are not going anywhere; you just have to get yourself to them. And keep in mind that the more remote they are, the more bucket-list-worthy they are, too.

If there is a poster artist for the current participatory-art craze, it has got to be Yayoi Kusama, whose exhibits—especially her Infinity Mirror rooms—have drawn record crowds around the world for the past few years. In her case, the challenge is not so much getting to the show, but getting into the show, and then getting into each individual room in the show. After you get your prized time slot—and good luck with that—you must wait your turn in not just one line but six. Most of the Infinity Mirror rooms can fit two or three people, and each has its own line to stand in.

Luckily, as with any good amusement park, there are, along with the main rides, plenty of other entertainments. At the Kusama show, the side attractions amount to a more conventional museum experience: a short course in Kusama’s early obsessional work—her repetitive nets, polka dots, and phalluses. You will learn that it was by wrestling with her mental illness and her compulsion to spread those forms on every surface—walls, floors, furniture—that Kusama began to lay the groundwork for the Infinity Mirror rooms.

Kusama’s Infinity Nets, a series of large paintings that she began in 1958, are canvases entirely covered with beautiful, repetitive loops and waves of paint that give the impression of a rippled oceanic surface that could go on and on, into infinity. (When Kusama first made them, she was compared to Jackson Pollock.) Then come the dots. Dots mean Kusama and Kusama means dots. But long before there was the circuslike Kusama we know today, her dots had a serious side. She discovered that she (like all of us) was “one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe,” and decided to use them to evoke individual disintegration and cosmic unity. “Polka dots,” she has said, “are a way to infinity.”

Soft phallic shapes were a form of self-therapy for Kusama, who made a rowboat out of them in Violet Obsession.

Violet Obsession (1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Duke. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

Around 1961, Kusama’s two-dimensional obsessions began to overflow into three dimensions, as she made soft tubes out of cloth—first just plain white cloth, then striped or polka-dotted—and stuffed them like sausages. She called these soft phallic objects “Accumulations.” En route to the Infinity Mirror rooms, you’ll encounter a few. On the floor of one darkened gallery is Violet Obsession (1994), a rowboat and oars covered, both inside and out, with cuddly purple phalluses. Nearby are two chairs from the mid-1960s, sprouting soft, bulging white phalluses. Extending through the length of one gallery is A Snake (1974), a long, silver serpentine form on the floor, bristling with baked-potato-like phalluses.

There’s an embarrassment of phalluses, and that is the point. The phalluses were Kusama’s way of turning fear into something funny. Mika Yoshitake, the curator of the exhibition, explains that when Kusama was a child, her mother, suspecting that Kusama’s father was having an affair, had young Yayoi spy on the lovers and report back. This early vision of sex left her traumatized; she suffered hallucinations. Years later, as self-therapy, she began making soft phalluses and attaching them to furniture and floors. “By continuously reproducing the forms of things that terrify me,” Kusama has said, “I am able to suppress the fear … and lie down among them. That turns the frightening thing into something funny, something amusing.”

These ridiculous objects, simultaneously comic and tragic, are the perfect warm-up act for the main show, the six Infinity Mirror rooms. The first room, Phalli’s Field (1965/2016), is, if you’ll excuse the expression, Kusama’s seminal work, the bridge between the polka dots and the phalluses. It is also the bridge between Kusama’s New York experiments of the ’60s and her more recent mirrored works. The precursor to Phalli’s Field had no mirrors. It was a carpet of soft phalluses on which she could lie and be photographed. But after growing weary of sewing thousands of stuffed phalluses, she happened on the brilliant idea of achieving repetition with mirrors.

A version of Phalli’s Field was incorporated into Kusama’s public performances. She lolled in the field of her fabric phalluses on 14th Street while a camera captured the scene. Kusama’s work fit right in with the art events that were proliferating at the time—mostly one-off performances, part art and part theater, many of them involving nudity and paint, poetry and music, destruction and silence. They were called “Happenings.” (The painter and performance-art pioneer Allan Kaprow came up with the term in the late 1950s.)

Kusama grew tired of sewing thousands of stuffed phalluses, so she turned to mirrors to achieve repetition.

Installation view of Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (1965) in Floor Show, Castellane Gallery, New York, 1965. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photograph by Eikoh Hosoe.

The idea was to liberate art from museum boundaries, to blur the line between art and nonart, and to take the result to the streets and to the people. Unscripted immediacy was key, yet sometimes a running camera was part of the performance, too. For Meat Joy (1964), for instance, Carolee Schneemann and other participants rolled around on an assortment of raw fish, sausages, chickens, wet paint, paper scraps, transparent plastic; the whole thing was filmed.

Back in the ’60s, Kusama was not as famous as, say, Andy Warhol. But by the end of the decade, she had everything in place for the wildly popular experience we have now—the dots, the phalluses, the mirrors, the rooms.

Let me immerse you in my immersive experience—not that it’s any substitute for being there yourself. Before we start, I should tell you that your experience will certainly be different from mine; I was lucky enough to go during a press opening, so I didn’t have to stand in any lines, I got to enter each room alone, and I was granted not just 20 to 30 seconds, but a full minute!

An attendant waved me into the mirrored room that is Phalli’s Field. As I walked down a short plank leading to the edge of what looked like an endless pasture of red-and-white polka-dotted phalluses, the attendant shut the door behind me. For a second, as I became aware of myself in the mirrors, I had the sensation of being in a department store’s changing room. But I had choices to make, and quickly. I could stand there and confront myself in this field of phalluses, or perhaps I could try to cancel myself out of the space by ducking. Neither felt right. I knelt on the little dock and regarded myself at roughly the height of the blooming polka-dot things (mushrooms without caps!). I confronted myself many times over in many mirrors in this crazy landscape. Before the attendant came to usher me out, I snapped a picture or two on my cellphone, and did a quick video-pan around the place.

My next stop was Love Forever, a room that is mirrored on both the inside and the outside—my chance to be a peeping Tom, or rather a peeping Yayoi, if only for a minute. This six-sided chamber—first constructed in 1966, in part as a protest against the Vietnam War—was then reconstructed in 1994, and seems to hark back to Kusama’s childhood trauma. Instead of entering, you peer into it while another voyeur, catty-corner to you, can peer in at the same time. The room is radiant, and literally hot, because of the lights inside it. Although the view you have is abstract—an infinite hexagonal pattern of colored lights that reminded me of old Broadway—it also feels a bit dirty and illicit. You are aware of the reflection of your own eyes across the room and also of the eyes of whoever else is gazing into the box at the same time. It’s embarrassing by design. The viewer is the voyeur, and the voyeur is you.

To peer into Love Forever is to be reminded of old Broadway, and to feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, too.

Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever (1966/1994) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

By now, as I moved on to The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013), I had become aware that my awareness of myself was shifting with each room. In this one I was keenly alert to my size and scale. I had the sense of being alone in a city, where hiding is always a possibility. Because the world looked better without me in it, I ducked and took a selfie with no self in it. Shortly after I emerged, I could hear a recording of Kusama incanting words I couldn’t decipher. She was reciting, in Japanese, her poem “A Manhattan Suicide Addict” (2007). The lines, once I read them in English, seemed fitting after my recent attempt at self-eradication:

The present never ends …
I become a stone
Not in time eternal
But in the present that transpires

I was pushed out of my reverie by a jumble of gigantic spotted pink-and-black beach balls beckoning like carnival barkers toward the next Kusama ride. Dots Obsession—Love Transformed Into Dots, first made in 2007, was crammed with more beach balls. I quickly moved through this experience, which was as unethereal as you’ll get from Kusama—Kusama silly. Kusama psychedelic. Kusama Lite.

Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity (2009) was Kusama Heavy. Was she perhaps taking on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? With small lights hung low in the darkened and mirrored room, this work evokes the look and feel of toro nagashi, the ceremony in which paper lanterns are lit and floated down a river in the evening. I had the by-now familiar feeling of being small and absorbed in some vastness, where I knew no one but myself. This time the experience was exhilarating. I was on the dock of the bay of infinity. I had no urge to hide myself. I was only a silhouette anyway. I didn’t want to leave, but my minute was up.

And so I walked beside a field of yellow-and-black polka-dotted tentacles and on to the very last Infinity Mirror room, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016). I was conscious of the stark difference between what was above—a stormy sky, looming with dark and dangerous pumpkins—and what surrounded me at ground level: a field of happy, gleaming yellow pumpkins with black spots on them. Was I a faithful Linus shivering at night in the darkness, waiting for the Great Pumpkin? No. As I again viewed myself on the horizon line, I saw that I had become a bridge between two realms, up and down. I was an upright, rectilinear self in a world of orbs.

With its surreal backdrop, the pumpkin room was, I noticed, perfect for selfies. Well, who was I not to take a picture? I snapped 10 or so, and because the pumpkins were even more photogenic without me, once again I tried to expunge myself from some of the photos by lying low. (I learned only after seeing the show that lying down is prohibited.) Then my time was up.

I left the show by way of The Obliteration Room, a large space where visitors can decompress. On the preview day, it was an almost all-white room with all-white ikea furniture. By the time the circus left D.C. in May, thousands of visitors had adorned every surface with the colorful sticker dots that were distributed there. The white had been vanquished by a riot of Wonder Bread spots. This place, the only one where viewers got to make their mark, was the most communal and relaxing and also, I have to say, the least existentially affecting.

Kusama’s work also has a silly dimension.

Dots Obsession—Love Transformed Into Dots (2007) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

People who know that I have had the Kusama experience look at me like someone who has been to Mecca. They ask, anxiously, whether it’s worth it. Should they take extraordinary measures to get to this exhibit on its two-year-long tour? As I’ve thought about how to respond, I’ve also been puzzling over the peculiarities of our particular art moment: Why has the apprehension of art become so like theater? And why is Kusama, who never received as much attention in the 1960s as many of her contemporaries did, finally in the spotlight now?

I was given a one-word answer to that question—Instagram!—and surely that is right. The Kusama show has just about everything the Happenings once had—the chance to see something extraordinary, the chance to participate, and the chance to photograph (or be photographed). But the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition has added one key ingredient to the mix—the chance to capture the lonely existential experience of infinity and send it to others in the form of a selfie. People—thousands of them (check out #Kusama and #InfiniteKusama)—Instagram themselves in the exhibit.

By offering up to the public the solo art experience that was once her own private world—a primal and personal space for looking and healing and thinking about one’s own place in the cosmos—and then by also allowing selfies in it, Kusama has created the perfect art experience for the social-media age.

Her shows are crowded because, as many viewers will tell you, you really do have to see these works in person to appreciate them. No photograph, however good, can deliver that existential jolt of being there, seeing yourself repeated ad infinitum. At the same time, Instagram is helping to drive Kusama’s popularity; it is the means by which people advertise to the world that they are among the precious few who have had this lonely experience of being one dot among millions. The visual proof has helped propel Kusama’s work to the forefront of destination art in its latest form.

Of course, destination art isn’t exactly new; the frisson that accompanies a firsthand encounter has always been an element of art appreciation. In the late 18th century, Europeans flocked to see panoramic paintings, thrilled to be immersed in a 360-degree experience. In the early 19th century, a walk through the Louvre or a tour of Italy became de rigueur for any cultured European. In 1913, the Armory Show, where Marcel Duchamp showed Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), was an essential art pilgrimage. From the 1930s to the 1950s, every city that exhibited Picasso’s Guernica on its European and American tour drew crowds. By the 1990s—30 years after New York emerged as the Happenings capital, and some two decades after land art lured viewers farther afield— the new draw was destination architecture. Think of Bilbao, Spain.

Now the magnet has moved again. Museums and galleries are currently trying to attract visitors by engineering immersive environments and interactions. From Kusama on the grand end of the scale, offerings extend down to the circumscribed and understated: In “Sara Berman’s Closet,” at the Met, Maira Kalman, with her son, Alex, has re-created her mother’s closet, holding mostly white clothing. Meanwhile, this summer the Guggenheim in New York is exhibiting Doug Wheeler’s “PSAD Synthetic Desert III.” Installed near the top of the Guggenheim’s spiral, this small show—a “semi-anechoic chamber” filled with beautiful, sound-absorbing foam stalagmites and stalactites—promises visitors in small groups (with timed tickets) the experience of the silence of the desert.

Drawn, yet again, to the lure of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I went to see Wheeler’s chamber. And I am happy I did, because I had an epiphany about exactly what sort of art moment we are in. Although I did not experience the sublime silence I was hoping for (I was actually overwhelmed by a pulsating ringing in my ears), I had an important encounter on my way out of the museum. I spied the stanchions that signal a wait-in-line-to-see experience. I stood and waited. For what? A toilet. It was a solid-gold toilet, titled America—the work of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, installed in one of the museum’s bathrooms. Visitors, after standing in line, can not only behold and admire the toilet, but also use it. “Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately,” the museum’s brochure notes, “allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” Intimacy indeed.

I went in, took a picture of the gold toilet, sat down, and tried to get a selfie that included both me and the work of art. From the sink, after washing my hands, I got another picture of the gold toilet, alone. And I suddenly understood that, taken in the right spirit, America is not just a riff on Duchamp’s infamous Fountain—a porcelain urinal signed with the name R. Mutt, which, by the way, is 100 years old this year. It is also a supreme example of relational aesthetics, whose core idea is that the give-and-take of a social situation can itself be a work of art. You donate pee, you take away a photo. What will your photo be? Your face as you sit on the gold toilet? Your contribution to the gold toilet? It’s up to you! (I was told that one employee had been fired for standing on the toilet in an attempt to get a good selfie, which he then sent out to his friends.)

If you look around you, you’ll see examples of relational aesthetics everywhere. Over the past few years, for instance, several museums have offered up Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, on which people can hang their wishes, written on little paper tags. Recently the Jewish Museum, in New York, hosted “Take Me (I’m Yours),” in which visitors were supposed to take whatever they wanted from the exhibition—plaster casts of coffee lids, ribbons with slogans, buttons, T-shirts, clips of film, vials of air.

In our trophy-getting, Instagramming, participatory era, the taking and posting of selfies has become an important and unintentional extension of relational aesthetics. Whether spectators are invited to take pictures or not (cellphones are not allowed, for instance, in Wheeler’s silence chamber), many visitors now experience museums and galleries with a cellphone in hand and a Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook account at the ready. You take a picture, you post it for your friends, and they receive the favor, and do the same in return.

Indeed, some museums have started loosening up their rules about photography, on the theory that people are more inclined to come if they are allowed to take pictures. Regardless of the rules, though, viewers snap and viewers chat, and the resulting experience is hard for any museum to control or to script—which is, after all, a basic (and potentially unnerving) principle of participatory art.

The surreal pumpkin room is perfect for selfies.

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London. © Yayoi Kusama. Photograph by Cathy Carver.

Case in point: In its inaugural show last year, the Met Breuer included Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)—a 175-pound pile of candy from which visitors were allowed to take a piece. Despite a sign on the wall telling viewers that photography was not allowed, the pile of candy inspired, as W magazine noted, pictures aplenty on Instagram. “The good ones are on the bottom!” read a caption that was hashtagged #GettinItIn; the picture showed a visitor plunging his hand to the bottom of the candy pile. Another Instagrammer wrote: “The Met Breuer giving out free candy on the 4th floor and other cool things that you should def go see”—a caption that yielded the comment “Omfg.”

What those exuberant viewers might not have realized, though the wall text explained it, was that by taking a piece of candy they were taking part in a performance that refers to, among other things, the physical decline of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of complications from aids (as did Gonzalez-Torres). The weight of the pile of candy, at its outset, was Laycock’s ideal weight, 175 pounds, before he got sick.

Will Kusama’s exhibition—where photography is obviously welcome—suffer similar indignities? It already has. One visitor to All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins reportedly tripped over one of the gleaming pumpkins and damaged it while trying to capture a self-portrait in a mirror. What has become almost laughably clear is that Kusama’s mirrored investigations into existentialism and infinity have become theaters of infinite narcissism.

But does it really matter? Narcissism, after all, is one of the inescapable ingredients of participatory art, which not only highlights the give-and-take involved in any art experience, but also calls attention to the power of the audience to complete, or complicate, or confound an artist’s intention. Like Gonzalez-Torres’s pile of candy, Kusama’s works were created, at least in part, to deal with personal trauma, but they are also asking viewers to have their own experience. Surely Gonzalez-Torres knew that some visitors wouldn’t be thinking about aids while sucking the pieces of candy they took from his pile, and surely Kusama knew that no one would experience her works as she did.

In fact, maybe the distance between the sorrow and the silliness is part of the point. I do wonder, though, what in the world Kusama, who doesn’t have a cellphone and doesn’t do Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, would make of the circus that is “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” What would she make of spectators so busy trying for the perfect selfie that they fail to feel any sense of existential angst or joy? I have a suspicion that she might smile.

Although you may have missed your shot to see the exhibit in Washington, D.C., Kusama will be coming soon to a city that might be somewhere near you: Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland, and Atlanta. If you ask me, I would say go ahead and put it on your art bucket list. Why miss out on the chance, before you die, to wander through fields of phalluses and polka dots and watch yourself contemplate your own insignificance in the universe? The experience is well worth it, if only to get an intimation of where every bucket list points—to the finitude of your existence in this infinite cosmos. You wait in line, you get your turn, you look around in awe, you snap a few pictures, and then, like everyone else, you are escorted out.

Well, that’s life. It may look infinite, but you are not. You are just a dot, there and then not.