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Beauty is (Not) in the Eye of the Camera: Yayoi Kusama at the Tate Modern

By Annabel Martin

Image credit: CNN

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tate Modern, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms, a year long exhibition dedicated to the Japanese contemporary artist, is opening in May. Known for her installation pieces, paintings and sculptures (just to note a few of her many creative disciplines), the exhibition will be the largest one dedicated to Kusama’s work in the U.K. to date.

Visitors will experience two of her mirrored infinity rooms, Filled with the Brilliance of Life (2011) and Chandelier of Grief (2016), as well viewing photographs and videos of her early performance pieces, some of which are being exhibited for the first time.

Kusama’s work is heavily influenced by her psychological trauma and she uses art as a means to express to others how she experiences the world. Having had her first hallucination at the age of ten, Kusama’s iconic polka dots and pumpkins are manifestations of what she sees, and her work provides viewers with an insight into her perception of the world.

Upon first hearing about the exhibition, I could not help but think about the explosion of Instagram posts that are going to follow its opening and the issues this raises. Kusama’s infinity rooms are every influencer and art-posting-enthusiast’s dream. Filled with the Brilliance of Life looks utterly bliss as it evokes a dream-like extraterrestrial state - but will you be able to enjoy it with the flashing of phone cameras around you? How does the use of mobile phones impact your experience in a gallery space? Videos for Snapchat and Instagram stories and photographs will endlessly be being taken. The fact that Kusama’s infinity rooms completely surround viewers with mirrors will only exacerbate their vanity as they perfect their pose for the post that will achieve optimum likes. In moderation, the taking of a few photographs is not an issue, but exhibitions and galleries becoming a backdrop for photoshoots is.

The unavoidable snapping of pictures at galleries and exhibitions raises the wider question of whether art is becoming vapid in our society as too many of us are not able to give our undivided attention to anything. One of the beauties of galleries is the opportunity they give us to completely lose ourselves in a piece of work and forget about what is happening outside of its walls; something which is a rarity in our current socio-political climate. Galleries and museums are safe spaces for us to think and reflect and the threat to these sacred spots is alarming, but not entirely a surprise. The surface level appreciation of artwork, simply taking a picture to prove you were there, thus making you ‘cultured’, is a symptom of a greater problem; we are simply posting pictures at exhibitions rather than truly absorbing them, or letting them absorb us, because we prioritise our online persona over our engagement with art.

The issue of phones disrupting engagement in social situations is not new, it has been widely discussed and debated with regards to gigs and nightclubs. According to a survey done by Skiddle, almost ⅓ of young people aged 16-30 think that phones should be banned at live music events because they are ‘distracting’ and ‘take away from the experience.’ DJs and nightclubs are increasingly banning phones, opting for placing stickers over their cameras, in a bid for people to connect with others and the music instead of living the night through a screen.

Perhaps placing a ban on photography at galleries and exhibitions would lead to a deeper engagement with the work, however, I wonder how it would affect attendance. When people post pictures at exhibitions it is free and effective advertisement. Pictures from Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, In real life, at the Tate Modern over the summer, were plastered over Instagram feeds. I must admit that I was not familiar with his work, but after seeing countless posts and stories of his 45-metre colour-changing haze corridor and Your Uncertain Shadow, where visitor’s shadows were projected onto a wall in different colours, I decided to go. If I hadn’t seen posts on social media of the exhibition, chances are I would not have gone; so there is something to be said about the power of Instagram and social media use over the popularity of exhibitions.

Exhibitions and gallery spaces becoming photo-ops not only undermines the artists’ work, but starts the slippery slope of normalising an apathetic attitude towards the arts. From the actions taken against mobile phone use at live music events, perhaps we should start a discourse about taking pictures at exhibitions and galleries. The real point here is drawing the line between taking a few photos of work you like, and standing in front of an artwork and posing for 1-2 minutes with your friend on their knees trying to get the best angle. We can experience art in different ways, but it is important to put your phone down and take the piece in. Kusama’s infinity rooms will look infinitely more mesmerising gazing into the mirrors first hand than through a screen, and are you really going to look through all of those videos and photos that you take afterwards?