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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder