Kusama, art and “the other”- part 1

Just about a month ago, I was fortunate enough to score two free passes to Yayoi Kusama‘s exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.  With record-breaking crowds and thousands of people trying to get the timed-passes online, I am still amazed that I was able to see, or better yet, experience her work.

I won’t forget that Thursday afternoon in April, amid a busy academic schedule, that I stole away with a friend for a few hours, and entered another world:  Kusama’s world.


Part of Kusama’s brilliant exhibit.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Now that some time has passed,  I’ve been able to reflect on Kusama, my relationship with art and the connection they both have to feeling like “the other.”

Prior to seeing her exhibit, my Twitter feed was streaming with pictures that showcased cool images of a world of mirrors and lights.  And then there were the photographs of her massive paintings that boasted of bright colors and patterns.

I could hardly believe that I was going to get to see this for myself.

But what truly built my anticipation to see Kusama’s work was learning about her as an individual.

Like many others, Kusama, 87, has battled mental illness for most of her life.  She began drawing and painting when she was just 10.  Creating art became an outlet for the pain she suffered from childhood trauma.

For the last 40 years, she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital.  Still,  she retreats to her nearby studio each day to paint for hours.

As I was walking through the Hirshhorn Museum that April afternoon,  it was clear that this exhibit brought joy to the crowds.  People were smiling, laughing and commenting aloud on how amazing the infinity mirror rooms were.

There was a sense of childlike wonder among the adult visitors – an invitation to participate, to be a part, to be included in something magical.


Mark adds his polka dot to Kusama’s Obliteration Room. (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

I spoke to strangers (which isn’t unusual) but strangers also spoke to me, sharing their thoughts about a particular piece.  One lady laughed aloud, pulling me aside to make a joke about a soft sculpture.

The environment was warm and friendly, welcoming and accepting.  Not your typical museum vibe in my experience.

It was as if we all knew that we hit the lottery by scoring passes, and that reality, in addition to the exhibit itself, was a shared experience.

In a 2016 interview, Kusama said that the motivation behind her art is “To reduce the class divide.  I want all the countries in the world to help each other – and that more people can strive to live in peace.”

I don’t know how many social classes were represented at the Hirshhorn that day.  If I had to guess, I would say not many.   Then again, historically, access to art has a definite correlation to social class as explained in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction:  A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.

{And no, although I understand Bourdieu’s basic theory, I have not read his book.  I much prefer Carl Wilson‘s book on taste.}

But what I do know is this:  Kusama’s exhibit broke through the invisible divide that I have often felt while walking through an art museum.

Some museums are free and even ones that do have an admission fee, there are student discounts that I have benefited from.  So why have I felt out of place and often like “the other” when I’ve been a visitor?


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