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?

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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.