Looking at people looking at Kusama

I finally went to the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the National Art Center, Tokyo (国立新美術館) in the Roppongi district. The exhibit, My Eternal Soul, started back on February 22 and I was pretty excited from the moment I found out about it. After moving to Japan, one of my top goals was to see Kusama's work in person without the agony of waiting in line at the MoMA. She resides and maintains her studio here in Tokyo after all. 

Yayoi Kusama's bright, whimsical work makes you wonder what it might be like to see the world with her mind.

It's no secret that she's experienced hallucinations since childhood, and thus 'translates them' to create her famous psychedelic work. She's known to describe her work as "art medicine." Kusama was part of the avant-garde Pop Art scene in NYC, alongside the likes of Andy Warhol. She returned to Japan in the 1970s to be institutionalized and treat her mental health. From her studio near the hospital, she continues to create her incredible work. The world Kusama creates is merely made of simple figures, bold colors, shapes, patterns—but it has the stunning ability to mesmerize and transport you. 

Even the normies like her work because it's so damn Instagrammable. A lot of people started to recognize Yayoi Kusama and her unique aesthetic after her eye-catching collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2012. 

Leading up to its debut, the gallery was announced with bright colored posters spotted all over Tokyo's subway stations. Commuters rush across the platforms beneath the stoic gaze of Yayoi Kusama adorned with her iconic bright red hair, dressed in polka dots, seated in front of her vibrant artwork. She is hard to miss.

I wait it out for over a month.

Ok, Japanese residents and even the tourists here are some of the most patient and resilient humans, especially when it comes to waiting in line. From Disneyland to Dominique Ansel, they have the superhuman ability to wait in comically long lines. I, however, have a certain threshold and avoid pushing its limits. 

There's actually another exhibit in the same museum that started a few weeks after the Kusama exhibit that I also want to see, so I figured it'd be worth the wait to knock two birds with one visit. The muted tones of Alphonse Mucha's work would be an interesting foil to the bright colors of Yayoi Kusama's pieces. My hope was that my patience would be rewarded with the luxury of time in each exhibit. 

Finally, on a random weekday afternoon, I decided it was time. It'd been a few weeks already and I just finished my school exams. With the sunshine beaming on my highly-caffeinated face, I feel the jitters (mostly due to caffeine) as I queue up for a ticket. The line to the ticket booth is a bit longer than expected, but I'm not worried. The museum is quite large and simultaneously hosts a number of exhibitions. Plus, the electronic marquee said there was a 0 minute wait to get into the gallery for the exhibition. Good signs!

Then, I get inside.

Holy cameraphone, Batman. 

The museum organized it so that photography is only allowed in the main large room, where the walls are adorned floor-to-ceiling with her "My Eternal Soul" series. In the remaining route of the exhibition, photography is strictly prohibited. So people were getting their selfies-worth in this huge room. 

The first 10 minutes in this space is wildly frustrating. It's impossible to capture any photo without someone else in it. I was consistently photobombed.

Then, I decided to embrace the experience: I started to people-watch. And people are hilarious. It's pretty entertaining to see people with devices ranging from pocket-sized flip phones to baking sheet-sized iPads frantically taking photos of the artwork. Some people stagger around the space, steering through the exhibit solely with their device. Little kids, tethered to their adults, attempt to break free or clutch phones in their hands as well.

In this technicolor-mania, I start to think many of these photos will only have a half-life of a Facebook post, Instagram Live, or Snapchat Story. It's so weird. If you aren't there to fully witness the art in person, why put yourself through that mess? Lines are long, you're herded like animals, and the docent tend to scold you like a misbehaved schoolchild. I mean, getting likes is definitely fun. But it seems pretty miserable to go to a museum only to take a selfie in it.

If you're looking at something through your phone the whole time, did you really see it?


I'm super guilty of this.

When something catches my eye, my impulse is to line it up with a camera app. I don't post every one I take, but I definitely take a ton of photos. In a way, I can empathize with that unfortunate selfie-taker who smashed one of Kusama's pumpkins...I can get caught up in the moment and lose myself in the photo op. We live in a culture of oversharing and I can't help myself. It's fun to not-so-humble-brag about what you've been up to. 

It's so easy for me to be completely in my phone while I move around in my day. The moment I step out the store, I open my AM amp up Spotify playlist on the way to the station, check emails and edit photos while riding the train, perhaps post a new Instagram. I usually get around to straggler emails and finally text back my mom during class breaks. If I'm grabbing solo lunch, I catch up on blogs and Quartz newsletters. It's nice to be so easily connected to a world beyond my physical reach. 

But, being consumed by a phone can also be pretty terrible. Pop-ups and notifications can make me feel scatterbrained, jumpy. My thoughts become disconnected. Trying to think of a clever caption in English while walking to my class to study Japanese tangles up my brain waves. Plus I bump into a lot of strangers along the way: I'm now pretty good at saying sorry / excuse me in Japanese. (すみません。ごめんなさい。)

I began to learn about the practice of mindfulness from past client work and at my old yoga studio. The focus on intent and attention to the present moment helped me realize that I wasn't taking notice of the details throughout my daily life. 

My attention is so scattered when I'm trying to capture things on my phone. I'm thinking ahead to what and how I'll post something. Or who I might share it with later. I want my phone to be a tool, not the experience. 

Now, before I tap open my VSCO app, I challenge myself to be bring my full attention and be present in a space. In a museum, this means to really take time to experience the work before capturing it. I also made the decision to not post while I'm still in the place. That way, I use the photos as a retrospective tool to think back to my experience of the place. It stretches the actual time I spend in a space. 

At the Kusama exhibit, I circled through the route twice. First with my phone out—to catch any fun photo opps—then I took a second round with my phone away. So I did it backwards. Baby steps, yanno?


Mindfulness is psychological process of bringing one's attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. 

(according to Wiki, 2017)
Lessa Chung