24 hrs in London (Pt I) – Why I didn’t get my #Instakusama at Victoria Miro

24 hours in London, 24 hours to squeeze in as much art possible. In a city of this scale and size, like any major global city in the world (I’m having trouble with the word ‘global’ at the moment courtesy of my PhD discussing cultural ‘centres of power’), it is often difficult to work out what art to see. From the prolific “must see” shows emblazoned across the media, to the unknown hidden visual gems you discover by chance or word of mouth…it’s a minefield out there and you can’t like everything, right? I should probably say something more academic here about visual interpretation, meaning and translation but I’m in a world of this right now in Chapter 2 of my PhD. I want to talk in real terms.

From a retrospective research project in an academic contexts to Chinese (high) art at the summit of commercialism, sensorial colourific sculpture therapy to the flippant (and questionable engagement) with immersive environments, here is a series of blog posts on what I saw, how I felt and what left me wanting more…feel free to join in the art speak.

Yesterday morning, after a meeting with Bloomsbury Gallery, I headed over to Wharf Road (N1) to finally take in the visual bonanza of Yayoi Kusama: All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins & Chandelier of Grief at Victoria Miro (a gallery I respect and love), and the neon sculptural wonderland of Rana Begum at Parasol Unit. Having waited many months for Kusama’s show to open – and at last having an opportunity to visit in an interlude from PhD kingdom – I arrived at the gallery to be faced with a sense of disappointment instead of a sense of spectacle.

As I approached the gallery, I saw a long queue and thought to myself “is there an event I don’t know about?” I spoke to the doorman (yes, the exhibition and gallery had a doorman due to the amount of people queuing to get in), who stated this had been the state of play since the exhibition opened. With queues every day, the queue at that moment was roughly a 30-45 minute wait, then a further 45 minute to an hour in the gallery where…wait for it…you got to spend 40 seconds to one minute with the artwork. Just enough time to take a few selfies right? Welcome to 2016 where experiencing art is as disposable as your latest selfie on Instagram. I know, I’ve done it.

Yayoi Kusama - Victoria Miro
Outside Victoria Miro. 15 July 2016. Photograph by Rachel Marsden

I laughed out loud – and far too loud as people stopped and stared at me wondering how this situation was so hilarious. How was it not?! I wanted to talk to people in the queue to find out why they were there, their expectations, their anticipation but I just couldn’t as something dawned on me – we are living in the era of theme park art, where it is all about the anticipation, the “I’ve been there” selfie and the ticked off a (life) list experience rather than the opportunity for considered response, experiential immersion towards self-reflection and (potential) personal change. The world if full of too many “oh I’ve been there” conversations…what about the “it made me feel this when I was there” conversations? Perhaps there were these latter conversations and don’t get me wrong, the scale of these audiences are always beneficial in raising the profile of contemporary art – everyone needs more art in their life – along with the audience ricochet effect on neighbouring spaces such as Rana Begum’s exhibition next door at Parasol Unit (reviewed  later in this blog post), but seriously 40 seconds to one minute?! When public, non-profit galleries and museums work with a project of this audience popularity, they often introduce timed visit tickets to avoid congestion and to allow for experience to take place…even if the exhibition is free.

Having been in the Asian art sphere for the past seven years now, acknowledging  and experiencing Kusama’s signature motifs, designs, symbolism…from sites of play to sites of solace…all demarcating a specific juncture in her personal and global history (there’s that word again), all I could think was “what would Kusama have to say?” Obsessive and ritualistic in practice, her works are reflective of a truly individual and personal mental state, her understanding of the world through cosmos and constellations where it seems almost disrespectful to disallow viewers from engaging, from immersing themselves within the space.

“The motifs in her works have their roots in hallucinations – a form of active self-obliteration – from which she has suffered since childhood, in which the world appears to her to be covered with proliferating forms…Kusama’s work is far-reaching, expansive and immersive. Simultaneously infinitesimal and unlimited in scale, it allows the viewer to enter into a fully realised world.” (Victoria Miro Press Release)

The majority of hallucinations aren’t anticipated unless induced, where the majority of people wouldn’t understand what it is even like to hallucinate. Surely the integrity of the work relies on audience engagement to trigger a comparable experience unachievable in 40 seconds to one minute? Perhaps Victoria Miro didn’t anticipate such a large audience? Although the gallery has always had a good rapport with celebrities. I bet Victoria Beckham got to spend more than one minute in there. Wait, ironically she recorded a video that was 28 seconds long! Also, she was coined by the Daily Mail as “goofing around in there”, um I don’t think she was; she looked pretty serious, but I could be wrong. I can’t believe I’m quoting the Daily Mail.

‘All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins’ (2016) by Yayoi Kusama. Wood, mirror, plastic, acrylic, LED. 292.4 x 415 x 415 cm 115 1/8 x 163 3/8 x 163 3/8 in. Image courtesy of Victoria Miro.
‘Chandelier of Grief’ (2016) by Yayoi Kusama. Steel, alumunium, one-way mirror, acrylic, chandelier, motor, plastic, LED. 353.8 x 556.3 x 481.8 cm 139 1/4 x 219 1/8 x 189 3/4 in. Image courtesy of Victoria Miro.
Victoria Beckham Victoria Miro Yayoi Kusama
Victoria Beckham visiting Victoria Miro from her Instagram account @victoriabeckham

This begs the question, is the art of real experience just available to be bought by the rich and famous? Or is it art for all where the ‘centres of power’ are delineated through a hashtag – for Victoria Miro #InstaKusama. Or is all art now mediated online through the art of the selfie? It’s even mediated here through my blog.

I did go to the gallery’s 2nd floor space to see Kusama’s paintings engulfed in the vast white gallery space to watch the majority of people give less than 40 seconds attention to the works. No surprises there then. However, I didn’t stop to queue. I didn’t get the opportunity to immerse myself in another’s hallucinatory mindset. I didn’t get to write my review based on first-hand experience, instead it is based on a sense of confused anticipation. I didn’t get to see it in all its 40 second to one minute glory.

One minute is not enough.

Funnily enough, after Victoria Miro, I headed to Lisson Gallery to see ‘Performance/Audience/Mirror’ where I had the exhibition all to myself. Polar opposites in audience and experience. I happily got lost in Dan Graham and Rodney Graham’s video and performance works. Retracted and isolated, I indulged in my experience. I think I quite like being isolated in art…although it depends on the art and the art of experience.



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