Victoria Miro Gallery
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Why are people queuing for hours for a 30-second glimpse of some light-up pumpkins?

Art-goers have been enduring three-hour waits for the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, just for a solitary glance at her work. Is queuing part of the experience, or is it just for the Instagram mirror snap?

Dazed magazine provides an A-Z “Definitive Guide to Yayoi Kusama”. For the letter Q, it offers “Queues” to be a defining feature, crucial to understanding Japan's most prominent contemporary artist.

Wildly popular, Kusama exhibitions are famous for drawing crowds” and “queues are an integral part of the experience”, it states. Her retrospective “Infinite Obsession” saw over 2m visitors while travelling in South America. In New York, 2,500 people a day queued around the block during Kusama’s exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery. As I arrived at London’s Victoria Miro gallery on Saturday, it was confirmed that queues are something of an inevitability if you wish to get a glimpse of Yayoi Kusama's exhibition (including her pumpkin sculptures).

One woman at the beginning of the line told me she had been waiting for three hours. I didn’t have a chance, seeing as the last entry was in an hour, and the line was currently half way down Wharf Road, she informed me. So I turned away. But curious as to what the hype was about and determined to see Kusama’s iconic pumpkins in the flesh, I returned to the gallery on Tuesday.

Despite arriving at opening time, I still had to queue. And the lines didn’t end when I eventually entered the gallery. Outside each mirror room that makes up the exhibition, I was again met with queues of individuals, gripping their iPhones or Canon cameras, desperate for a glimpse (or photograph) of the Kusama craze.

“On average, people spend a net time of two hours queuing, to see two and a half minutes of art,” the gallery assistant told me.

                            

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins Queue (2016) Photos: Rosie Collier

Once you’ve endured the wait in line to Kusama’s All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, and the gallery worker opens the door and grants you entry, you are given 30 seconds within the space. That’s 30 seconds to acknowledge the illuminated reflective pumpkins surrounding you, tap the camera on your phone and take a photo of your reflection, and actually look at the art. Once the door closed I suddenly felt overwhelmed with panic. How can I do all this all in half a minute? In a matter of seconds (literally) I was in and out of the space, with one Instagram-worthy photo and a spinning head.

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016) Photo: Victoria Miro Gallery   

But does all this queuing really bring anything “integral” to the experience of viewing Kusama’s work? Waiting in continuous lines to go inside her mirror rooms made the whole thing feel more like going through airport security rather than spending time within an art gallery.

A gallery should be a space for contemplation, but this felt tense and too rushed for anything of the kind. Gallery assistants were equipped with stopwatches, measuring your every second in each space and scrutinising and regulating your enjoyment of the art. Inside Kusama’s Chandelier of Grief, the combination of the bright lights of the chandelier and the camera flash inflicted by tourists made my head ache. Mirrors pervaded the whole exhibiton, confronting me with the image of myself, which I didn’t really feel like facing in 30 degree heat. I felt on edge. 

 

Chandelier of Grief Photo: Victoria Miro Gallery   

But is this not precisely what Kusama wants to achieve? Rather than a logistical decision to ensure as many people as possible can actually see her art each day, the regulatory 30 seconds granted is perhaps essential to the experience of viewing her work. Though her mirror rooms are static in the space they occupy within the gallery, they are simultaneously transitory in that individuals are only with her art for a brief moment. There is something about the ephemeral nature of her magnificent displays that make them all the more striking.

The bright lights and flickering personalities of her mirror rooms, and the panic and overwhelming confusion they evoke is again, intentional. The artist has long suffered with mental illness and now resides in a psychiatric institute, working in her gallery opposite the building daily. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2012, Kusama talks of her experiences of hallucinations.

“Suddenly things would be flashing and glittering all around me. So many different images leaped into my eyes that I was left dazzled and dumbfounded.”

Stepping into her All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins is an experience almost identical to this moment Kusama describes. It is as though we are stepping inside the artist's mind for a few seconds. We leave as "dazzled and dumfounded" as Kusama’s own hallucinations left her.

Her work is uncomfortable, but undeniably beautiful. The myriad reflective images of her illuminated, infinite pumpkins and chandeliers are breathtaking. Kusama fragments the boundaries between visual art and the viewer as she creates this immersive space, even if you do have to wait for hours to experience it.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution