Is That Yayoi Kusama Selfie Worth the Wait?


WASHINGTON — I had been waiting in line for one of the six dazzling mirrored rooms at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” exhibition for 15 minutes when I noticed the sign: “How would you describe this room in three words?”

“Infinitely long lines,” offered my friend Meredith Brown.

The show promises an immersive, transcendental experience in which viewers — typically three at a time — step inside mirrored rooms alternately covered with dangling lanterns and floating globes. We were among the 14,000 visitors trying to push through the exhibition of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work in its opening week late last month. Like many others, we came with our phones out, seeking the perfect shot, depicting captivated bliss reflected thousands of times over.

But instead: “Keep it moving,” guards yelled as visitors lingering in front of Ms. Kusama’s canvases of hypnotic nets and dots.

Visitors who had stood for hours in lines looping around the building discovered more of the same inside.

Some scrolled through their phones. A cry of outrage came from one woman in line, snugged against a wall with diminished cellphone service. “I can’t even get on Instagram,” she wailed.

“Who here is by themselves?” one attendant asked, and singles, realizing they could jump ahead, rushed to the front to join strangers.

Attendants announced artist-approved time limits in each space: 20 or 30 seconds for each group of three. By the time we had snapped a blurry selfie, we were shooed out. And then, of course, there was another line to rush into.


Let Yayoi Kusama Take You to Infinity

For more than 50 years, the Japanese ultra-Pop artist has awed audiences by crafting sculptural illusions with light and mirrors to replicate the sense of infinity. Experience five rooms at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

By TIM CHAFFEE and MAUREEN TOWEY on Publish Date February 25, 2017.

Photo by Tyrone Turner for The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

“We have to up our game,” my friend said.

The museum encouraged social media in the infinity rooms, using the hashtag #InfiniteKusama. So were we the only ones failing on that front?

Derek Debruce, 26, also came for the Instagram photo.

“I didn’t get the shots that I wanted, but I got a little something-something,” he said.

Mr. Debruce, of Northern Virginia, became a member so he could skip the long lines outside. But he still found himself waiting in the gallery — in lines so long that The Washington Post published a survival guide to the show this month.

“I thought the member pass would give me my privilege,” said Linda Simplicio, another new member, laughing. “But it hasn’t.”

As of Saturday, the museum has had a record 95,000 visitors — the highest attendance in 40 years for the period of Feb. 23 (the show’s opening date) through March 11. About a third of those people have made it inside the exhibition.

Melissa Chiu, the museum’s director, said that although Ms. Kusama has been recognized throughout her career, “it has only been in recent years that exhibitions have consistently broken museum attendance records and attracted enormous attention.” She credited social media for the increased interest.

“I think even another 10 seconds would’ve helped,” said Trish Donnally, a museumgoer. “But standing in these long lines, I realize people are behind me.”


Visitors waiting for their turn inside one of the infinity rooms.

Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Ms. Donnally, 61, and her husband, from Washington, were turned away from the show on their first try. On their second attempt, they arrived more than an hour before the museum opened at 10 a.m. They did not get all the way through “Infinity Mirrors” until 4 p.m.

“I hadn’t realized it would take all day,” Ms. Donnally said.

Waiting in line for the last infinity room, my friend and I planned the perfect boomerang shot. Among dangling golden lanterns, we aimed the phone at mirrors reflecting a thousand jazz hands.

“It didn’t work,” she cried, reviewing a blackened screen.

We had 15 seconds left. “Let’s just look,” she said, putting away her phone. Those last moments were the most entrancing.

To accommodate the crowds, the museum has extended hours, from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, March 22 through May 3.

And for the first time in its history, the museum also offers online timed passes, which are available a week in advance, allowing the museum to reassess visitor limits every week, said Elizabeth Duggal, the museum’s deputy director. Since opening week, the museum has reduced the number of daily visitors allowed inside to what Ms. Duggal called a “sweet spot” of about 1,600 to 1,700 people — helping to improve the lines.

And demand will probably increase at peak tourist season during the National Cherry Blossom Festival next week.

“We’re looking at how to best include those visitors in the experience, too,” Ms. Duggal said.

The exhibition closes on May 14, before traveling to the Seattle Art Museum in June, with further runs in Los Angeles and elsewhere in North America through 2019.

So is it worth the wait?

Absolutely, but with all the Snapchatting and Instagramming, don’t forget to look at the art.

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