This weekend I attended the Whitney’s Yayoi Kusama Retrospective. This retrospective originated at the Tate Modern and I was lucky enough to attend it back in the Spring. Though both of these museums began their retrospectives on the same terms, they executed the exhibition wildly different. They varied in painting selection, space allotted for her video works and size of installation. Whose did I prefer? It is tough to say. I think the Tate Modern completely submerged its patrons in the life of Kusama, from it’s Obliteration Room, where patrons could obliterate a stark white room with thousands of colorful stickers of circles, to Filled with the Brilliance of Life, a (crowded) large infinity firefly room installation and I Am Here, but Nothing, a living room cast with projected glowing dots that paint even the patrons walking thru, the Tate Modern had more transformative sensory experiences. These experiences, that invite the viewer to not just look at Kusama’s work but become apart of her maddening world, is what sets her a part in the Contemporary Art world. But just because the Tate Modern offered more of these moments, doesn’t mean the Whitney didn’t deliver. Their installation Fireflies on the Water gives a rare opportunity for a person at an art museum, it allows them a complete minute of complete solitude and reflection with a stunning art piece.
I arrived to the Whitney at exactly 1pm, right as doors opened. However the hype and excitement of Kusama’s retrospective has definitely infected the city, because I had to wait an hour to get into just the doors of the museum. Once in, I received a pass to have my minute with the fireflies, which wasn’t until 6:20. (4 and half hours later) Me and my friend debated whether it was worth it to hang around in uptown for the rest of the day just to spend exactly one minute with an art piece (Yes, they time you.) Ultimately we decided it was something we were going to do eventually anyways, so we might as well. (All wasn’t lost as we took the extra time to wander through Central park.) When we arrived back to the museum my anticipation to enter the piece was surprisingly and alarmingly high. Two people were ahead of me in line and my heart started to beat, faster and faster. Why was I so anxious? I practically lived inside the Phoenix Art Museum’s Firefly room, and though this is a little differently executed, the concept is the same. Perhaps it was the stop watch around the guards neck as she briefed the room on the rules ( how we get a minute exactly, no exceptions, no photography, stay on the platform, slide down.. four to a bench. Your time is out, hurry get in!) The giant white door opens and out walks a dazed person from a glowing room as another anxious person steps cautiously in, the door closing swiftly behind them. It was all so serious, so intense.
Finally it was my turn as the door closed behind me the commotion of the busy museum silenced and at last that familiar sense of awe, beauty and peace took over. Standing on a platform, surrounded by water in a room full of mirrors and dazzling colorful lights.. I was completely alone in a crowded city; Obliterated by brilliance. This is the beauty Kusama creates. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Check out Fireflies on the Water for yourself. Open at the Whitney until October 28th. Retrospective closes Sept. 30