How the Tel Aviv Museum of Art Sinned Against Yayoi Kusama

In its eagerness to sell tickets, the Tel Aviv Museum sinned to Yayoi Kusama, her work, and the public that crowded cheek-to-jowl at the exhibit

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Visitors to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum take photos with their mobile phones.
Visitors to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum take photos with their mobile phones.Credit: Hadas Parush
Amit Neufeld

Like many before me, I too found myself at Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's much-discussed exhibit. The tickets were purchased by my mother-in-law months in advance, and on a recent Saturday the entire family got together for something that was allegedly a fun outing, and in actuality grounds for a class-action suit.

I do not presume to be an art critic, nor do I intend to discuss the merits of the works themselves, but only the quality of the experience of attending the exhibit. This was dubious at best, horrible at worst, and the blame lies mainly at the feet of the producer (the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) and to a lesser degree the visitors themselves.

From opening day, more or less – some of the well-connected managed to document themselves against the backdrop of the works even before the official opening – the social media feed was flooded with images from the four infinity rooms that form the core of the exhibit. Whether I wanted to or not, every single day I was exposed to dozens of photos by friends overcome by the need to inform the world that they have witnessed the wonder of polka dots up close.

Of course, it’s hard to blame them, as these are incredibly photogenic works, and at the same time are hard to comprehend – each visitor is allowed (supposedly, more on that later) to spend 30 seconds alone with the work. As it seems that the overwhelming majority of visitors preferred to use this brief timeframe for a quick series of photos (I take the liberty of assuming that the photo that went viral is merely the one that bested the others) we may determine that in practice, nobody really attended Kusama’s exhibit.

In our bodies we may have wandered through the museum halls, waiting in endless lines for the peek-rooms, but in spirit we were elsewhere, in another time, where “likes” flow like water and flattering comments made us seriously consider changing our profile picture. It’s one thing for visitors themselves to choose this way to spend their precious seconds with the iridescent dots. They are entitled to be willingly captives of the zeitgeist. But why force spoilers on others?

A woman visits the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum in December.Credit: Hadas Parush

Walking through the exhibit I couldn’t help but feel that I had visited it hundreds of times in the past. There was no image not seared in my brain, nor a single work I hadn’t seen from 30 different angles before setting foot in the museum.

Studies done over the past decade show that intensive exposure to images of food can diminish the pleasure of actually eating it, and it would not be baseless to project from that to any other human sensory experience. Anything we experience intensely on social media (or the internet at large, such as sex) will perforce not be as good in reality, without filters and endorphins, and even if it is just as “good,” it won’t be terribly exciting. Been there, done that.

So yes, you spoiled it a bit. There wasn’t really a chance to experience the works firsthand, but that is dwarfed by the Tel Aviv Museum’s mighty fiasco, and I refer of course to the overcrowding.

True, the exhibit is in Israel for a limited time only, and it behooves the museum to give as many people as possible the chance to immortalize it on Instagram, but the Saturday visit made it clear beyond doubt that the museum presold an unreasonable number of tickets, knowing full well that the number of visitors at any given moment will not really allow any of them to experience it as it should be experienced, or even as the artist herself expected it to be experienced.

At the entrance to each infinity room is a small sign specifying that entry is alone or at most in pairs (as can be gleaned from the museum’s website as well.) In practice, we were admitted in groups of 10, this due to impossible lines (we waited for about half an hour to enter each room.) Infinity has never been so unimpressive, and to us it amounted to the reflections of other people.

As mentioned above, this is a planned, engineered fiasco, stemming from greed, stupidity, or a cruel combination thereof. After the visit, my mother-in-law wrote in the family whatsapp group that she was “sorry the experience wasn’t rewarding.” I replied, only half joking, that “it will be, after the lawsuit.”

We abandoned the exhibit without seeing all the infinity rooms. The wait was simply unreasonable, especially considering the payoff.

Before we left, I ran into a gorgeous work hanging on the wall at the entrance to one of the main halls – a cluster of grapes hanging from a branch – painted of course out of dots of all sizes. I stared at it for long moments, tracing the way discrete dots converge into a distinctive, clear image, still part of the general chaos. It was a work that touched me in an unclear but pleasant way. I was glad to have had the opportunity to look at it.

The short experience in front of it reminded me of the Slow Art Day initiative, marked each year on April 2. People visit local museums, looking at only five works (spending at least 10 minutes at each work), and then meet to talk and exchange impressions. I can’t think of a better way to experience art. True, we get a lot less done, but at least we truly experience the works we choose to observe.

The author is the editor of the Slow Movement’s website, and author of “History of Speed.”

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