[VIDEO] Yayoi Kusama's Festival of No Life (until you get inside the door)

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"Sometimes I think Yayoi Kusama might be the greatest artist to come out of the 1960s and one of the few, thanks in part to her long life, still making work that feels of the moment. Other times I think she’s a bit of a charlatan who produces more Kusama paintings than the world needs and stoops to conquer with mirrored “Infinity” rooms that attract hordes of selfie-seekers oblivious to her efforts on canvas."  Roberta Smith
I had to open with this pithy POV re the World's Most Expensive Living Female Artist (as of last week; this week it might be Jenny Saville) - by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. She's not the only one who vacillates...

"Kusama is like Lion King," yawned a friend. "So much hype."  I admit to concurring, especially after witnessing first hand what some diehard purists would consider sacrilege: the iconic Phillip Johnson Glasshouse bedecked with Kusama's signature measles:

That's Mies and Kusama lounging together

You know you want to watch me line up, right? 
But neighborly curiosity won the day. On the second last day of the show, I confess I stood, I shuffled, hopped from one leg to the other for almost 3 hours in 20-degree brain-freeze for a glimpse of Kusama's latest bling-o-rama: "Festival of Life," aka "Infinity rooms," courtesy of local megagallerist, David Zwirner.

 
Doing my best Kusama impression 

"You get barely 3 minutes in each room," warned a friend who had endured the line the previous day. "Take food, charge up your Kindle, download War and Peace..."

My initial attempt to gain press access was politely turned down, despite my recent accreditation as an Art Basel blogger, and even more compellingly, pulling my "neighbor" card.

"Our press slots are all full," wrote a Zwirner gallerina via email, "but you're welcome to line up and freeze your tits off with the rest of the plebs," she didn't add. So I set the alarm, bundled up with 3 winter layers, my yak boots, a flask of hot chai, and headed down the street at 8am to join the throng.

The longest line in Chelsea - make that Manhattan, since I filmed this crazy job fair in 2008

And what a throng it was: second only in length to this job fair just after the 2008 recession (check out my video), it snaked all the way around to Underline Coffee, or almost 3 New York City blocks. Some people seemed very prepared to wait 4 hours they were never going to get back. I met a group of young doctors who'd staked out their spot in the line, their colleagues arriving at a more humane hour with carbs, coffee, hand warmers and other extreme (for Manhattan metrosexuals) survival tools.

Survival food: carbs and coffee in sub-zero temperatures.
Hand warmers - even more essential than hot chai. Trust an ER doctor to know!  

I wondered aloud about the strategy behind the line, reasoning with the security police that Zwirner could have easily charged $20 if you wanted to skip the line, or make it free only if you had a lot of life to burn...

"That would be great, but that's not what the boss wants," said the guard imaginatively. 

As the line crept forward I fantasized about the armloads of desperation dosh you could reap from this captive audience. Hot samosas, hot coffee, flaming torches, even little stools to sit on. Speaking of which, about 30 mins from the hallowed door, an enterprising outfit called #linedudes had chalked precisely the info we all needed on the pavement:

Just 30 mins of frostbite to go

Finally, after more than 3 hours of getting to know every brick and crevice of 19th Street, we reached the first door. Here you could duck into the no-line gallery exhibiting Kusama's riotous paintings - captivating in their technicolor abstraction. They call to mind a prolific, exuberant child artist going nuts with unlimited paint and paper. Which isn't too far off the mark, given that Kusama reportedly lives a child-like fantasy existence, shuffling between the mental institution where she resides and her studio a couple of blocks away, each and every day. You can get the compelling inside story on her difficult, dedicated life as a struggling artist in a new film by Magnolia pictures
Kusama's paintings, once ignored, now sell for millions.


But paintings aren't why people are burning 2-3 hours of no life... it's the famous Infinity Rooms that are pulling the crowds. And after a seemingly infinite wait, a blast of warm air finally enabled us to start thawing out and enter Kusamaland.

A very Japanese thing,  these booties. 
We were issued Tyvek booties, which echo the mandatory indoor slippers when entering a house in Japan, and just as well, given the designer dog poop on Chelsea sidewalks. And so began our 3 minutes in each Infinity room...


A hush came over the first room as we as we prowled among the silver orbs and mirrors - a bit like the old "house of mirrors" at fun houses. The seams between the mirrors irked me - did the installers consider thinking of a way to make it look continuous? But hey, they never built a monument to a critic.


The next room resembled a disco on steroids, where you could marvel and lots of images of you and your iPhone poking through a hole with a hallucinogenic backdrop. Several color changes gave one a feeling of drowning in gift wrap. Check out the video for the full Pantone experience. 


Finally, the red dalmatian room immersed you in Kusama's signature motif - red spots. Somehow, this room suggested that having a dreaded skin condition was actually something to celebrate. It might be a good therapy room for teens with acne. Large alien flowers painted like the background completed the optical illusion. About this time, my phone buzzed. It was a Zwirner gallerina, letting me know a spot had opened up for a press pass. Only 3 hours too late! 


So, was it worth the wait? Sure. I made new friends and reminded myself why I love art: per Twyla Tharp, "Art is the only way to run away without leaving home."


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Watch the video: CheleaGallerista braves the line
Kusama at David Zwirner

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