Day 6

'Infinity Mirrors' and the changing face of art in the Instagram age

Huge crowds are lining up to snap a selfie with Yayoi Kusama's 'Infinity Mirrors' exhibition at the AGO. But would they better off putting their phones away?
A woman looks at her phone while viewing the 'Love Forever' room during a preview of the Yayoi Kusama's 'Infinity Mirrors' exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum February 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of people will descend on Yayoi Kusama's highly-anticipated Infinity Mirrors exhibition when it opens its doors at the Art Gallery of Ontario on March 3.

They won't have long to experience 'infinity.' Visitors are limited to just 20 seconds in each of the exhibit's mirrored rooms.

But that hasn't stopped exhibition-goers across North America from doing their best to snap the perfect shot of each room on social media — sometimes at the expense of the art itself.

"One of the rooms, the pumpkin room, the person who was taking a selfie tripped over one of the pumpkins trying to get a good selfie," recalls writer Sarah Boxer, who wrote about the Kusama exhibition for The Atlantic.

"They had to shut that room down for a while and replace one of the pumpkins that was shattered."

Yayoi Kusama really likes pumpkins. The motif appears in many of her works dating to the 1940s and, in 1993, this piece, titled All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkin, appeared in the Venice Biennale. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Boxer says there's no question that Instagram has played a major role in fuelling the hype around Kusama's latest work.

"You know, it's like going to a party and posting your party pictures," she says. "Everybody wants to be invited."

The AGO is encouraging visitors to engage with social media inside the Infinity Mirrors exhibition, providing cellphone chargers and even putting together a 'selfie podium' where people can upload their images at the end of the show.

But some of Kusama's fans say we ought to be putting our phones away instead.



To selfie or not to selfie

Canadian art critics Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star and Leah Sandals of Canadian Art Magazine both got a sneak peek at the Infinity Mirrors exhibition earlier this week — and both made a deliberate choice to keep their Instagram use to a minimum.

"I was tempted to take a selfie because it feels like an almost compulsory thing that you're supposed to do," says Sandals.

Still, she made it through the mirrored rooms with just a single photograph, snapped by a colleague.

You can't actually convey the experience ... in a photograph.- Leah Sandals, online managing editor, Canadian Art Magazine

Whyte avoided social media altogether during his time in the exhibition.

"I wasn't tempted to take any selfies while I was in the various 'infinity rooms' because I had sort of made a pact with myself that I would not," he says.



Experiencing 'Infinity'

Both Whyte and Sandals feel Infinity Mirrors is far more immersive and meaningful sans camera.

"The thing about these 'infinity rooms' is that, although they are extremely popular on Instagram, they actually can't be properly photographed. You can't actually convey the experience of them in a photograph," says Sandals.

It's ... a really reductive way of looking at somebody who has this incredible backstory and an awful lot of darkness to her practice.- Murray Whyte, art critic, The Toronto Star

"You have 20 seconds from the moment the door closes, and they knock on the door after 15 seconds when you have five seconds left," adds Whyte.

Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama speaks to journalists at her studio in Tokyo, Japan September 26, 2017. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

"I would bet that that's barely enough time for anybody to take their phone out of their pocket, focus it, and put themselves in a position where they might actually want to take a picture themselves before they have to leave."

He continues: "It's also a really reductive way of looking at somebody who has this incredible backstory and an awful lot of darkness to her practice."

Yayoi Kusama's work spans decades, and goes far beyond the polka-dotted images that are taking over Instagram and Snapchat today.

In fact, Infinity Mirrors has been an evolving project of hers since the 60s, many years before the invention of cell phones.

A woman enters the The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away room during a preview of the Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum Feb. 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

"I think it would have been a radical proposition for the Art Gallery of Ontario to say 'no phones,' which would have ... forced people to do something they do less and less of these days, which is experience things in the space that they're in," says Whyte.

Still, Sandals does see some value in the images people are sharing on social media.

"I'm very pleased to see Kusama's important work honoured in that way, the whole breadth of her practice," she says.

"I do think it's really cool that in these 'infinity rooms,' using a selfie, you can situate yourself in an infinite space."


'Infinity Mirrors' is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 27th.

To hear more from Murray Whyte and Leah Sandals, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.