The hottest ticket in Los Angeles is the Broad’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, a survey of the 88-year-old Japanese artist’s five-decade body of work. The museum sold out all 50,000 tickets in the first hour, and each morning, a queue forms outside for the opportunity to pay $30 for a standby ticket at the door.
In addition to viewing Kusama’s paintings and personal ephemera, each ticket guarantees a coveted 30-second slot inside each of the six “infinity rooms” – mirrored chambers in which sparkling LED lights, luminous acrylic pumpkins, or floating orbs form an immersive, kaleidoscopic abyss. For Kusama, the infinite fields of light meant the dematerialization of the body becoming one with the universe; for most ticketholders, however, it’s an awesome selfie.
On Instagram, the Broad’s geotag summons a seemingly endless stream of photos of museumgoers – individuals, couples, children – holding smartphones up to Kusama’s reflective surfaces. The rise of art selfies like these has become a bone of contention among the art world elite, inciting a backlash in Kusama’s case. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith called her “a bit of a charlatan” who “stoops to conquer with mirrored ‘infinity’ rooms that attract hordes of selfie-seekers”. The LA Times went further: “The most interesting feature of the rooms is that looking at the ubiquitous photos of them is as fulfilling as actually being there”. Apartment Therapy meanwhile, declared it “the Instagram exhibit to end all Instagram exhibits”.
Kusama, who has been making infinity rooms since the 1960s and has lived voluntarily in a Tokyo mental health facility since 1977, saw a resurgence in interest in her work in the late 2000s, right around the time smartphones were rising to ubiquity, that catapulted her into global superstardom. The Kusama effect is a universal phenomenon not only sweeping LA’s population of so-called social media influencers, but concurrent exhibitions in both David Zwirner galleries in New York, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, and a dedicated Kusama museum that opened in Tokyo in September.
Kusama’s current global domination is a symptom of the larger art selfie story. Recent years have seen the development of the so-called “selfie factory,,” a name given to museums of hyper-stylized backdrops that cater specifically to selfie seekers. These include the millennial pink walls of the Museum of Ice Cream, which opened in LA’s Arts District this summer, or the elaborate interiors of Refinery29’s 29 Rooms, slated to open in December.
A recent study by the marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen may stoke the cultural elite’s fears of the fall of western civilization as we know it. According to the research, “the definition of culture has democratized”, with participants placing socializing and interactivity as top priorities in cultural activities – putting Caravaggio on the same pedestal as Coachella.
But this imagined cultural crisis is only a matter of perspective. The detrimental effects of social media rest solely in the eye of the beholder. Since its opening, the Broad has been criticized for its focus on crowd-pleasing works of art, including an array of glossy Jeff Koons sculptures and Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. Ordinary museumgoers, however, have praised the institution for its accessibility.
“It’s true that the Broad’s visitorship is very different than a traditional museum audience,” says museum director Joanne Heyler. “The average age of our visitor is 33, compared to the national art museum average of 47.”
Public accessibility and social media exposure are not metrics that speak to the seriousness of an institution. The Louvre, after all, is the most geotagged museum in the world. In 2016, the Broad came in fifth, just behind another local favorite, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), which was fourth.
“For Lacma, Urban Light is huge on Instagram,” says museum social media manager Eva Recinos, referring to installation of lamp-posts by the late Chris Burden in front of the museum. “People celebrate milestones there – engagements, weddings, quinceañeras. You can come for free to take photos, and maybe that’s your entry point to Lacma at large. We do see influencers, but we do see people who don’t post about museums that often.”
Back in February, just a few days into the traveling Kusama exhibition’s debut at Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a visitor tripped and damaged one of Kusama’s luminous pumpkins, allegedly while taking a selfie. As a result, all photos have been banned inside, which is perhaps the best thing to happen to it.
At the Broad, two women accompanying a pair of young girls placed their phones in a cubby before entering an infinite field of glowing, misshapen vegetables. “Now we just enjoy it,” one of the women said, implying that the museum experience is about balance. Sometimes it’s nice to just put your phone down.
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