Yayoi Kusama Opens at the AGO: Take Your Selfie, But “Take the Time to be Present”

“If you spend too much time trying to capture that perfect image, you might miss that opportunity to connect with the work with more profound ways.”

Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored infinity room is the selfie backdrop of the season. In just three days, the Art Gallery of Ontario managed to sell 30,000 timed tickets to Canada’s eager art patrons — and there are thousands more who waited in virtual lines, disappointed they missed out. From March 3 through to May 27, you can expect to see those who scored a pass posting photos from inside the highly anticipated exhibit. Those who didn’t, will be scrolling though their feeds with envy.

The local Toronto hype — and Kusama’s recent global domination — are a symptom of a larger art selfie story. Whether it’s LACMA’s Urban Lights, the millennial pink walls at the Museum of Ice Cream or Saatchi Gallery’s “From Selfie to Self-Expression” exhibit, social media users — me included — are lining up for artistic photo ops that cater to our collective narcissism. These are pictures that says to our followers: “look at me, I’m pretty and cultured!”

With six infinity rooms at the travelling Kusama exhibit, there are ample opportunities to reach maximum likes. But unlike more recent selfie-serving galleries, Kusama wasn’t taking social media into consideration when she started her art. The 88-year-old Japanese artist made her first mirror room, “Phalli’s Field,” in 1965, creating an endless expanse of phallic tubers covered in polka dots. “The Phalli’s room came out of her explorations of sculptural forms and her idea of repetition,” says Adelina Vlas, the AGO’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. “She sewed them onto furniture, she put them onto objects. But then, she realized that it was physically demanding, and she needed a way of expanding that experience. That’s how the mirrors became part of the work.”

With the art selfie, Kusama’s experience is being expanded more than she ever thought it could be. Kusama isn’t active on social media herself, but Vlas says she is aware of this other dimension of her work that’s being disseminated on social media. “It’s an amplification of the effect she was trying to pursue with the mirror rooms,” she says. “She wanted that image to be reflected to infinity. And what I think social media is doing is taking that propagation of images further.”

Vlas hopes that even those who came for the selfies choose to be present with Kusama’s art: “If you spend too much time trying to capture that perfect image, you might miss that opportunity to connect with the work with more profound ways.”

There is, of course, no right or wrong way to consume contemporary art. But after spending some time previewing Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit at the AGO, here’s our tip: quickly snap your pic, then put your phone in your pocket. Superstars like Adele may get an hour in a Kusama infinity room — which caused her to see things “in myself and of myself that I’ve never noticed before” — but you’ll only have 20 or 30 seconds. Make sure to be present, and to let every moment count. 

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