Culture

The Kusama Effect: Exploring Art in the Instagram Age

Yayoi Kusama, famed for her Instagrammable artworks, is returning to London in May. But to what extent are our smart phones shaping the way we experience exhibitions?

Chloë Ashby | 11.03.2020

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Did you know there’s an Instagram account called Tits from the Past? I didn’t, until my stepdad pointed it out to me, which is OK because my mum pointed it out to him. Scroll through its feed and you’ll find scraps from historical and contemporary artworks that showcase female flesh. The premise, as stated in the bio: “We share fine art nipples”.

"It may be ironic that we stand in and around Kusama’s installations taking selfies when they are, in part, about losing the self in a seemingly endless space."

One of the weird and wonderful things about Instagram is that it turns each of us into a curator. Every time we post a photo, we’re adding another work to our very own exhibition. When it comes to art, we might zoom in on a detail like a nipple. We also might embrace a broader theme, or devote ourselves to a cause. For example, The Great Women Artists celebrates artwork by women on a daily basis in an effort to redress the gender imbalance in art history. But what happens when we enter a museum or a gallery with a phone nestled snugly in our palm? How is the virtual lens shaping the way we experience exhibitions in real life?

Consider Yayoi Kusama, the highest-selling living female artist in the world. Tate Modern hosted her first major UK retrospective back in 2012, and in May the museum will present a pair of the “Infinity Mirrored Rooms” that she’s produced since 1965. Step foot in each installation and you find yourself immersed in a cavernous space paved with mirrored tiles and pinpricked with hundreds of tiny LED lights that flicker on and off in the infinitely reflected dark expanse. The Japanese artist, who suffered from hallucinations as a child, has always been fascinated with vision and optical illusions – and here she invites you to inhabit a limitless field. For a few minutes, anyway.

One bonus of being plugged into social media as an arts institution is the ability to gauge audience reactions to artists and works. “In the case of Tate Modern’s upcoming exhibition, the reaction on Instagram has helped us to anticipate the sheer volume of visitors we’re likely to expect,” says the curator, Katy Wan. “A recent Kusama-related post reached around 175,000 likes by the end of the day it went online.” The buzz has had an impact on the practical organisation of the show, which will no doubt be prefaced by a snaking queue. The biggest worry, though: “We’re bracing ourselves for dropped phones.”

It may be ironic that we stand in and around Kusama’s installations taking selfies when they are, in part, about losing the self in a seemingly endless space. And yet, as Wan points out, the artist also has a long-standing interest in self-obsession. At the 33rd Venice Biennale she unofficially staged the performance piece “Narcissus Garden” (1966); the artist stood beside a sign that read “Your Narcissism for Sale” and invited the public to purchase their own image in the form of a mirrored sphere. “The ‘Infinity Mirrored Rooms’ can also be considered a participatory installation, the secondary stage of which is the cacophony of selfies on social media,” says Wan. “It’s quite visionary really, given that the concept of the series originated in the 1960s – long before smartphones.”

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Kusama isn’t the only artist whose exhibitions generate a lot of likes. Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, which closed at Tate Modern in January, attracted almost 550,000 visitors. The exhibition is now enjoying a second run at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and features works that prompt us to consider the way in which we perceive the world around us. For instance, “Your Blind Passenger” (2010) is a fluorescent fog-filled tunnel that obscures the audience’s vision and, in doing so, draws attention to other senses. “Beauty” (1993) conjures a rainbow inside while “Moss Wall” (1994) consists of springy, sweet-smelling reindeer moss.

The Danish-Icelandic artist hopes to encourage his audience to contemplate how they feel about, and impact, the environment. It’s a big topic, one that stays with you when you leave the museum.

“For Eliasson, it’s not just about what we see in the galleries,” says Lucía Agirre, the curator behind the exhibition in the Basque city. “He’s using different mediums and technology to make content that people have more time to take in.” The artist uses Instagram to spread awareness of his projects and motivations, and has a TV channel that gives a glimpse of the ongoing experiments in his studio. Back in the museum, it’s Agirre’s job to consider how an audience is going to approach and get the most out of the show. “In every museum and in every exhibition, what we as curators should do is try to facilitate the relationship between the art and the visitor – you have to make the experience as fluid as possible.”

“The image that you take in that moment and later share on social media has nothing to do with reality. The real experience is the one you’re having inside the gallery.”

Some arts institutions are taking the idea of a fluid experience to a whole new level. Take teamLab, for example, the art collective behind MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM: teamLab Borderless. The fully digital art museum opened in Tokyo in June 2018 with the aim of dissolving the barriers between humans and their surroundings. This museum is map-free and its art – which morphs and moves from room to room – is designed to be touched. Your presence has the power to transform a work: one minute you’re walking through a forest of flowers, the next a fast-flowing stream; animals clamber across walls and butterflies in every colour flit across the ceiling. We tend to heave a sigh of relief when we discover we have an exhibition to ourselves – but here, sharing it with others makes for a more varied experience.

For Culturespaces, variation comes in all shapes and sizes. Just a couple of months before the Tokyo museum opened its doors, the French organisation opened Paris’s first digital museum of fine art. L’Atelier des Lumières brings existing works of art to life by enlarging and projecting them onto walls, ceilings and floors. Small details such as a still life suddenly command our attention and characters step out of the frame altogether. The former foundry welcomed more than 1.2 million visitors between April 2018 and January 2019. Culturespaces also has a site in Les Baux-de-Provence, and has since established a third in South Korea, with a fourth opening in Bordeaux this April.

Though an Instagrammer’s dream, no photo can do justice to either of these digital art museums – and Agirre would argue that it’s the same for any work of art. “The image that you take in that moment and later share on social media has nothing to do with reality,” she says. “That’s not a real experience: the real experience is the one you’re having inside the gallery.”

The desire to share is of course nothing new – it’s now just easier and quicker than ever before. As a result, the conversation around art is moving more swiftly and works are, pleasingly, becoming more readily accessible to all. The challenge, then, for artists and institutions: to reap the benefits social media brings while ensuring the audience’s encounter with art doesn’t become rushed. Sometimes it pays to slow down and appreciate the small things – nipples, say.

IMAGES | SHUTTERSTOCK

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