The door shuts in a dim room. Darkness surrounds you but for soft, glowing constellations replicated as far as the eye can see. In Yayoi Kusama’s “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity ,” a small chamber walled with mirrors stretches infinitely. Disorientation descends the moment you step inside. Suspended bulbs cloud the horizon as a warm, flickering haze. You hang in space. A moment spins on the axis of you. There is a soft knock. Thirty seconds have passed. Your time is up. Please exit.
To view an art installation often means waiting. Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit opened at Seattle Art Museum in June, but my wait began in May.
“Do we need tickets for this?” my boyfriend texted, with a link to an article in The Stranger . Get them now, the paper urged:
Currently, due to the popularity of the exhibit and high web traffic, the SAM ticket portal for this exhibit may give you an error message, but it’s worth persisting. The show doesn’t open for another month, but they may sell out online completely.
I was in New York for business, but nowhere near my computer. On my phone, I searched for a members-only portal to no avail. In fact, members had their opportunity to acquire advance tickets for most of May, but I had not been paying close attention. I tested the link again. The progress wheel spun: error message. Spin, error, spin again, error.
“I’ll try later tonight,” I replied.
The exhibit runs on quarter-hour time slots through the end of September. They couldn’t possibly sell out in an afternoon. Of course I was wrong, but I was in no position to keep the wheel spinning ad infinitum; I was already in line—at MoMA. It’s there, by pure happenstance, I first encountered Yayoi Kusama’s work. Part of the museum’s “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” exhibit, “No. F,” 1959, hangs like a moiré on the wall. Her minimalist painting of pale gray dots scattered across a white canvas intrigues me. If she can make monochrome this mesmerizing, just imagine infinity! Frustration settles in later that night, when I am confronted by a complete calendar of grayed-out dates. There will be a limited number of tickets available day-of is the conciliatory declaration.
The first day I attempt to get tickets is a bust. I arrive too late and with too little time to contend with the length of the line. The museum foyer teems with expectations filed neatly into roped-off queues for members and nonmembers alike. I don’t even attempt to fall in, strolling through the atrium instead, in one door and out the other. Three days later, I’m prepared. Half an hour before SAM opens, there is a line down First Avenue, from Union to University, and halfway up to Second. I’m somewhere in the middle, in the shadow of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” sculpture at the south entrance. Passersby wonder aloud what we’re all here for. No fewer than five inquire of me, and with each successive query I’m more aware of the spectacle, the question begged of such an assembly: What does this mob know that I don’t?
Waiting seems on the surface to be a blank space. We fill it with distractions on smartphones, music or podcasts in earbuds, idle chatter with those around us, or literature, for those of us lucky enough to have a book on hand. The wait, however—what Dr. Frank-N-Furter so delectably performs as antici . . . PAE-tion —can heighten the senses and focus attention. It can be an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness in preparation for what is to come, a truth of which I suspect Kusama is well aware.
At Kusama’s request, audience entry to the mirror rooms is limited to twenty to thirty seconds. One may return as many times as desired, but individual duration is finite. In one way, this is simply good marketing: People are drawn to crowds. Kusama crafted highly publicized protests of the Vietnam War in the ’60s. Projected on one wall inside SAM are photos of her supine body on a city sidewalk as people gather to take in the spectacle. Moreover, by limiting both timeframe and occupancy, she forces a queue where there might not otherwise be one. Even a few people interested would necessitate a line; only a maximum of three are allowed in the rooms at a time. As the others wait, passersby sit up and pay attention. The time limit also leaves viewers wanting more. Such brevity—when talking infinity no less—whets the appetite enough to inspire a return visit. But to do so, one must queue again, creating a cycle that could ostensibly stretch infinitely.
Can the wait be as integral a component of art as the materials, as the subject, as the medium? We often talk about “the moment” an artwork addresses. A cultural snapshot that speaks to or from a paradigm of thought or anxiety or pleasure, what have you. We fixate on when an artist created a piece and how long it took. But Kusama has me interested in the time art takes to encounter. In some ways, it is a more difficult subject to address. Our experiences with a piece are varied and unique. Some pieces may take a lifetime to digest. But I wonder what its impact is on how people engage the gallery space. A queue generates small talk, phone checking, loud sighs, shifting feet, and other agitations instead of, I don’t know, reverence? Are we only paying attention when we’re aware that art is asking us to?
In the introduction to his essay collection How to See , art critic David Salle suggests, “One way to look at a painting—and I use that word as shorthand for visual art in general—is to notice as you take its measure what it is you actually find yourself thinking about, which may differ from what you imagine you’re supposed to be thinking about.” It seems to me that this might as well apply to an enduring wait. Patience may be a virtue, but meantime isn’t dead air. A museum curator doesn’t haphazardly arrange work; she considers the negative space between pieces and what is communicated in its midst. Likewise, Kusama asks us to stand in suspension, a temporal negativity; perhaps there is meaning there as well.
One of the most intriguing uses of the temporal suspension, to me, is John Cage’s “4’33”—a composition in which instrumental silence is the primary conceit. The music, then, is everything else: audience members shifting, coughing, rustling. We are made acutely aware of the passage of time, of what four minutes and thirty-three seconds feels like. This is not purely a function of music, either. As a dimension of visual art, time can influence how works are understood just as much as their height, width, and depth! MoMA was holding an exhibit on Robert Rauschenberg during my visit, which is when I learned how his “White Paintings” are in direct conversation with “4’33”.
Much like Cage, Rauschenberg draws the viewer’s eyes to the shadows on and around the canvas series, painted a flat white, leaving as little trace of the artist as possible. Furthermore, they have been, at the artist’s request, repainted by friends, which throws both authorial status and the passage of time into question. A whitewashed surface rewhited resists yellowing; a pallor periodically altered appears to remain unchanged. Time, or rather its child decay, has no power over it. “White Paintings” suspend the toll years may take on it.
Time, then, can affect art, artist, and audience alike. For the 100th anniversary of Jacob Lawrence’s birth, SAM exhibited his “Migration Series”—in its entirety on the West Coast for the first time in two decades. The sixty panels depict the great northward migration of African Americans that spurred from the onset of World War I. Lawrence chose tempera on hardboard as his medium and wrote captions for every painting to craft the story he wanted to tell. While Lawrence’s series, first exhibited in 1941 as “The Migration of the Negro,” captures an arc traveling through the ’30s, the social movement continued all century.
The next year, MoMA and the Phillips Collection split the panels and have housed thirty apiece ever since—except when the exhibit is on loan. As migration continued into the late twentieth century, and as public discourse shifted, the series received a new title and new captions for its 1993 exhibition in Washington, D.C., before an ensuing two-year tour. Though the images have remained unchanged, Lawrence’s textual efforts to respond to the progress of time results in “The Migration Series” absorbing new meaning from the decades that followed its original publication.
I waited in an hour-long line inside the museum before entering the small room where “Migration” hung. My wait is miniscule when compared to the twenty years some here may have been waiting. With me are Black people whose anticipation fills me with wonder. The moment feels important. A slurry of word of mouth and white guilt has drawn me here: Why don’t I know about this artist? How is this my introduction to him? So many already know . My Sallean reverie of paying attention to where the art takes my mind meets my animal instinct to gravitate toward a crowd. My thoughts, however, are interrupted by the white people behind me. They are having none of it.
“An hour? I can’t wait that long! We don’t have that kind of time.” Then go, I think, it isn’t for you.
“Migration” isn’t for me, either, if I’m being honest. It is a Black documentation of a Black movement that does not and need not take my aesthetic into consideration. I am honored, however, to have gotten to see it in its entirety. I don’t have to love the technique to recognize its significant contribution to American culture. Likewise, my tastes need not cloud my awareness that, as I take its measure, I have begun thinking seriously about patience as a viewer of art. What is an audience’s responsibility to a piece, after all? At which time can we safely abandon hope of a work opening up to us? As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.
As I wait in line for tickets to “Infinity Mirrors,” and then again to enter, and several times more to view each room, I am compelled by the requirement of patience. Wait here. Please form an orderly line. Thank you for your patience. “I am deeply interested in trying to understand the relationship between people, society, and nature,” Kusama says, “and my work is forged from accumulations of these frictions.”
As any person in a society may well know, the state of waiting can cause some of the bitterest frictions. Yet the viewer becomes integral to Kusama’s rooms as each envelops and swirls around us. If a painting is hung in a gallery with no one there to see it, does it make a noise? I like to think that such a level of participation persists, especially when it comes to Kusama's enclosures, even upon exiting.
Much has been said about her mental health. Yes, she has resided in a Tokyo psychiatric facility for thirty years. Yes, her hallucinative mind and suicidal thoughts can color impressions of her obsession with obliteration . A mind, however, is a mind is a mind is a mind, inescapable for its bearer, so when I enter the “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit I attempt to contemplate the entire wing of the museum as the artist might. Standing as the axis of the glorious galactic swirl inside “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” or the optic axle running through “Love Forever”’s dueling landscapes of lights—do I not also become central to the “empty” span of time between rooms? Obliteration connotes a move toward emptiness, nonexistence, nothingness: that moment between one creation and the next.
As it happens, I don’t return to any of the rooms during my visit. Once each seems enough for a beginner whose mind has a tendency to run away with itself. But even now it’s possible that I’ve never really left Kusama’s universe of boundlessness and obliteration. The exhibit will close. The art will move to a new city. And new patrons will become the center of such marvelous worlds. The rest of us, though, hang in suspension outside. No matter the location, we wait within infinity’s orbit.