Worth The Hype? A look at Yayoi Kusama’s “The Moving Moment When I Went to The Universe”

I’ve got a confession to make – I didn’t really know who Yayoi Kusama was before this exhibition. Sure, I’d seen images of what turned out to be called infinity mirror rooms all over the internet – but could I have told you exactly what it was? Or who it was by? Nope, not at all.

Last month I saw this post on Instagram:

I clicked “get tickets” definitely a lot faster than you can say “The Moving Moment When I Went to The Universe” because hello Insta opp. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doing it for that reason, it looked so beautiful! Yes, I 100% fell for the hype. I hate this about myself and need to learn to curb my enthusiasm, but after having been to this exhibition twice over the past month (I told you I got carried away), I have zero regrets about having gone a bit cray cray when I first heard about it.

So let’s talk about Yayoi Kusama. This 89-year old multi-disciplinary Japanese artist has been active for decades, her work covering sculptures, paintings, installations and even poetry and writing. Her tumultuous life however (from a difficult upbringing to experiencing World War II and living, voluntarily, for the past four decades in a home for mentally ill people) isn’t patent in this latest exhibition. An art expert might find this statement laughable but my ‘amateur’ eye couldn’t really spot the darkness within her art. I’d go as far as saying that it’s pretty much the opposite feeling; it’s vivacious, enjoyable and uplifting – and yes, oh-so-Instagrammable.

But does the fact that Kusama’s art, at a glance, looks like it was made for the Instagram age make it superfluous? Does her talent shine through? I found the answers to these questions at “The Moving Moment When I Went to The Universe”, which is taking place at Victoria Miro Gallery.

I’ll give you a brief(ish) ‘tour’ of the exhibition, which is essentially divided into four sections (which I’m going to assume were all named by Kusama), and maybe this can help you decide for yourself whether it’s worth seeing.

1. Infinity Mirrored Room – My Heart is Dancing into The Universe

This ‘room’ is the start of the exhibition – it is literally the first thing you’ll see as that’s where visitors are taken to upon entering Victoria Miro Gallery. This is the room of all the rooms – the cherry on top of the cake, so to say. It is beautiful and magical no doubt, and hard to describe, so I will let the images do the rest of the talking.

Unfortunately, the staff only let visitors spend a minute or two in the room – it is such a controlled atmosphere that it’s almost hard to enjoy it. I do understand as it is such a delicate room, but it’s a shame  the experience couldn’t be a bit more relaxed. Only three people are allowed in the room, so if there are two people in front of you in the queue (it’s approximately a 15-minute wait) and you’ve come with another person, tough bananas – you have to go in separately. Personally I don’t think that’s great!

Ironically, despite being referred to as the Infinity Room and indeed having an infinite effect thanks to the mirrored walls, it’s a very small room and I wish it were bigger – it would definitely pump up the wow factor. But overall, it’s so, so striking, and I think it’s impossible not to love this room.

2. Pumpkins (a.k.a The Pumpkin Room)

Probably the biggest room in the exhibition, you’ll find three giant pumpkins and a series of hypnotic paintings in there. Pumpkins are a recurring theme in Kusama’s work and have a significant meaning to her, since her family cultivated plant seeds and there were Kabocha squash in the fields surrounding her childhood home.

As well as pumpkins, polka dots are also a Yayoi Kusama trademark – I loved the dot-infused, pattern paintings. Yes, they do have an undeniable dizzying effect but I love the precision and neatness. They are simple yet so effective and dramatic.

As for the pumpkins, they were very cute, but I wasn’t in awe of them. However, I can understand their appeal and see how well they would work within an open environment.

3. Flowers That Speak All About My Heart Given to The Sky

This section goes to show that sometimes the backdrop within an art show is everything. This was my favourite part of the exhibition because of the setting – I don’t think these flower sculptures would have had such a big impact on me had it not been for this lovely waterside garden within the gallery. That’s not to say I didn’t love these giant flowers – they are beautiful!

Colourful, playful and whimsical, these sculptures would look fantastic anywhere – but being able to discover them out in the open and next to a little pond made the experience all the more charming.

4. My Eternal Soul Paintings

The final, painting-only room serves as a good ending to the exhibition, with one side of it being covered by a series of colourful paintings that have an abstract feel but also feature microscopic-like creatures, faces and objects.  Hello, Instagram background! Very few people could resist having at least one picture taken in front of these paintings, myself included.

As someone who is very driven by colour and vibrancy, I loved these paintings and the whole room. But as well as vibrant, they’re quirky, mysterious and atmospheric – perhaps there is a touch of darkness in these works after all.

Outfit details here.

Whether it’s profound or not, art is ultimately subjective, and the viewer can choose what to see. As a child, Kusama started experiencing hallucinations in the form of repeating patterns. It’s sad to think about the suffering she’s endured, but to me there’s nothing more admirable than making art out of trauma. Especially art that’s so visually arresting and joyful.

As for the Instagram generation, there is of course a very fine line between eye-catching installations and gimmicky art. It is a shame that people like me (yep, 100% guilty) do go to these exhibitions for the sake of getting a good shot for the ‘gram – but at the same time, this is the new way for art to be genuinely enjoyed by the masses and a necessary form of marketing for both artists and galleries, who must strive to survive in this Insta-driven society with a minimal attention spam. However, after knowing a little more about Kusama’s life, I suspect that there’s little to no intentional gimmicking when it comes to her work, and is simply a release and a wonderful explosion of her imagination, thought process and even demons.

So, would I say this exhibition is worth the hype? Overall, yes. I know it’s about quality and not quantity, but considering there isn’t that much to see (I don’t think you need more than an hour to see it all, in fact most of your time goes on waiting around), I think it’s fair the exhibition is free. The fact that it’s a ticketed event is a shame, because as I really enjoyed it I wouldn’t think twice about recommending it to people.

I left feeling happy, and not just because I got a few pretty pictures out of it, but because it was a beautifully arranged exhibition that was different and heartfelt – at the end of the day, that’s what art should be.

Pictures taken on October 10th and October 19th at Victoria Miro Gallery, Old Street, East London.

“Yayoi Kusama: The Moving Moment When I Went to The Universe” is on until 21 December 2018 – check Victoria Miro’s social feeds for updates on any additional ticket availability.

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