Jakarta. Yayoi Kusama’s "Life is the Heart of a Rainbow" traveling exhibition has finally arrived in Jakarta, opening this Saturday (12/05) at the city's sparkling new Museum MACAN. Huge crowds are expected at the show, all brandishing their smartphones ready to take countless selfies in the artist's "Infinity Rooms" and reignite art's selfie debate.
Kusama's colorful dots and shiny LED lights seem to be the perfect art form for the Instagram age. The public is simply obsessed with seeing and being seen with Kusama's artworks.
One of these over-enthusiastic fans has already caused an incident. In Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a visitor damaged a pumpkin in the "All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins" installation while trying to take a selfie.
The Jakarta Globe met with local artists to discuss the Yayoi Kusama cult and people's obsession with taking a selfie stick so close to her works.
Authentic, Therapeutic Art
Senior artist Titis Jabaruddin said she has been a fan of Kusama since seeing her works for the first time in a catalogue published by Shanghai Hosane Auction in 2000.
"She’s honest and brave. She has original ideas. She's never imitated other artists, even her seniors, not now and not even at the beginning of her career," Titis said.
Yogyakarta-based artist Jumaldi Alfi meanwhile called Kusama an icon and a larger-than-life figure. He said Kusama is as unique as Yoko Ono.
This is despite the fact Kusama's work is not really to his taste.
"I haven't really followed her career. I'm not as amazed by her work as when I see a piece by [Takashi] Murakami or [Yoshitomo] Nara. Yoko Ono at least talks about interesting issues, but Kusama is more personal," Alfi said in a phone interview.
Heri Dono, one of the biggest names in Indonesian contemporary art, said although Kusama is often trapped in her own world, her artworks are amazing.
"What’s interesting about her is her power and courage to deliver her artistic message in a theatrical, attractive, interactive form that allows the public to become a part of her," Heri said.
It's widely recorded that the polka dots, nets and pumpkins that dominate Kusama's works were inspired by the hallucinations that Kusama experiences since she was a child.
Museum MACAN’s exhibition catalogue mentioned that Kusama admitted herself permanently into the Seiwa psychiatric hospital in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in 1977 after a severe bout of panic attacks and hallucinations.
Illustrators Citra Marina and Lala Bohang praised the way Kusama used art to survive her chaotic personal life. To them, Kusama's works are often "profoundly moving" and "poetic."
Vindy Ariella, an artist and founder of Bipolar Care Indonesia (BCI) who also turns her art into a kind of therapy, said Kusuma’s endurance and consistency in filling a canvas or other spaces with the same picture or pattern are mind-boggling.
"It’s not easy and requires deep focus. I’m sure that’s what she enjoys — turning her hallucinations into art. It has to be enjoyable, I know because I do that too, though of course not in the same scale as Kusama. But I definitely understand the pleasure that can come from doing it," Vindy said.
The Selfie Debate
To avoid a repeat of the aforementioned incident in Washington, D.C., Museum MACAN director Aaron Seeto said the museum will limit the number of visitors to Yayoi's exhibition to 3,000 people per day.
Curator Asri Winata said taking photographs during the exhibition can only be done using smartphone cameras.
Professional cameras will be barred from the exhibition since people tend take more time when taking photos with them.
And what about the selfies?
Kusama herself welcomes selfies. According to Mayo Martin in a report on Channel News Asia, Kusama has said she is grateful that her art is shared in so many platforms nowadays.
This is progress for Kusama, since the artist had said in the past that her own country "used to lack understanding of contemporary art."
In the early 1970s, Kusama faced a lot of criticism in Japan for her "happenings," which often featured performances in the nude.
Both Heri and Titis said selfies actually show that people are interested in the art again and that they're curious to know more about the artist.
"Taking selfies will not make you enjoy art less, in fact it's a form of appreciation and study," Heri said.
Citra the illustrator is less enthusiastic about the idea. She said once you've posted your selfies with a work by, say, Kusama, you've turned a personal experience into a social one. Your selfies become your cultural capital to look cool, cultured, in-the-know among friends and strangers.
For Citra, taking selfies will distract one's enjoyment of the artwork because "we shift the focus from 'what the artwork means to me personally,' to 'what I’m enjoying this artwork means to others.'"
Alfi offered a similar argument, pointing out that when people take selfies at art exhibitions, "the artwork is no longer the focus, it becomes just a backdrop."
Putri Ayu Lestari, a graphic artist whose works are being displayed in the current "Multipolar" exhibition at the National Gallery of Indonesia, echoed the sentiment.
"Often it's the selfie that matters, not the artwork. It’s sad, especially for the artist whose work isn’t appreciated the way she wants it to be, but that’s the reality," Putri said.
Selfies to Lala are a double-edged sword because despite all the objections, in this digital age they can be a very effective promotional tool for many artists.
"We can’t stop selfies because it'll be like, going against the zeitgeist," Lala said.
"There are people who attend an exhibition and really get into the works, but other people are just there for the selfies. Some people read books, some just snap a pic of a page to show off on social media. We can’t control people," she said.
Perhaps, as Lester Ho wrote in The Straits Times, our selfie obsession shows that art can be enjoyed by all, not just by collectors and art snobs.
"And if taking pretty pictures is the first step to further arts engagement, I say that's a victory for art lovers and the public alike," he said in his article.