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Yayoi Kusama: You Ask, We Answer

by Heather Saunders, Director of Ingalls Library

One of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s most attended exhibitions in over twenty-five years, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors attracted more than 120,000 visitors during its run through September 30, 2018.

Image courtesy Scott Shaw Photography for Cleveland Museum of Art.
Image courtesy Scott Shaw Photography for Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anticipating a blockbuster, the museum’s Ingalls Library and Museum Archives and the Department of Public and Academic Engagement sought a venue for people to learn more about the artist. Enter the Kusama Lounge, a space unique to the CMA. Previous North American venues for the traveling exhibition — the Hirshhorn; Seattle Art Museum; the Broad, Los Angeles; and the Art Gallery of Ontario — included a timeline of the Japanese artist’s life on the wall; in addition to the timeline, the CMA added books about, or illustrated by, Kusama that were enjoyed by visitors in the lounge. Docents and representatives from the library and archives staffed the drop-in space several days a week.

The Kusama Lounge. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.
Jason Schafer, Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian assisting a visitor in the Kusama Lounge. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

This initiative relates to a library trend called “roving reference” or “roaming reference” that has swelled with the advance of mobile technology. It moves staff beyond the reference desk and into the rest of the library or beyond the library’s walls. The goal is to dismantle barriers to accessing knowledge by being proactive and anticipating needs. This alternate approach supplements the traditional reference desk, but does not replace it.

As a way to bridge the two sites, Ingalls Library displayed eye-catching books about Kusama and promoted a bibliography of recommended reading through bookmarks distributed in the Kusama Lounge. Library lounge staff even roamed to another space in the museum where films are screened, bringing said books to a screening of Kusama — Infinity so audience members could peruse the materials and ask questions before viewing the film. Meanwhile, CMA docents used the lounge to promote their popular Kusama Connections tours, conducted in the permanent collection galleries.

“Have you seen the show?” and “Are you familiar with the artist?” are two prompts that lounge personnel used to engage visitors flipping through books or reading wall text. Many people visited the CMA for the first time to see Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, so library and archives staff and docents assumed the role of ambassador. They provided practical information like instructions for parking validation as well as sightseeing recommendations for the University Circle area and Cleveland in general, including artwork associated with FRONT International — a triennial exhibition of contemporary art installed throughout the region, with some installations at the CMA. Lounge visitors ranged from individuals to families to students from the Cleveland School of the Arts who learned about repetitive patterns for a fashion class.

Docents engaged with 424 visitors and library staff answered 600 questions during the run of the show. Some of the most common questions were:

How do you pronounce the artist’s name?

It’s contextual: it’s different in Japanese than in English, and not all English-speaking countries have the same pronunciation. For instance, in Australia, according to the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, the pronunciation is “Yay-yoi Koo-sar-mar.”

Although artsource.com recommends “yah-YOY koo-SAH-ma,” arts blogger Greg Allan’s suggestion of “Yah-yoy Koo-saw-mah” is arguably more authentic because in Japanese each syllable has the same amount of emphasis.

Vowels are pronounced very short in Japanese, so Kusama sounds more like “K-as-ma.” This is similar to many English speakers skipping over the first o in laboratory — a linguistic trait known as elision.

The online video “How to Pronounce Kusama Yayoi Correctly” is helpful. Her full name is repeated 20 times, but you can get the gist from 0:29 to 0:32. If you’re wondering about the reversed order of her name in the video, that is the standard in Japanese. No wonder this is a top question! The video has had over 7,000 views.

HOW TO PRONOUNCE KUSAMA YAYOI CORRECTLY. Copyright: Super Dacob

Is she alive?

Yes, and she remains incredibly active as an artist.

Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016. Photo by Tomoaki Makino. Courtesy of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama

How old is she?

Kusama is 89 years old. Infinity Mirrors spans over 50 years of the octogenarian’s career.

How are the polka-dot wrappings fastened around the trees?

The wrappings are fastened with elastic cords. The fabric is stapled at the seams but not to the trees. No trees were harmed in the process.

Images: Installation of Ascension of Polka dots, © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

How heavy are the silver balls in Narcissus Garden?

There are approximately 1,000 stainless steel balls installed in the planters of the Ames Family Atrium. Each ball weighs 2 pounds.

Installation view of Dots Obsession — Love Transformed into Dots (2007) at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929). Mixed-media installation. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York. © Yayoi Kusama. Photo by The Cleveland Museum of Art.

What is the large mirrored box in the Ames Family Atrium?

It’s called Where the Lights in My Heart Go, and it’s the first Infinity Mirror Room that visitors enter as part of the show. Its inclusion is unique to the CMA and is on loan from one of the museum’s trustees. The work is also unique in the sense that it’s the first of Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms that doesn’t use artificial light inside.

Does she make the Infinity Mirror Rooms herself?

Kusama oversees an atelier, or studio, employing multiple staff members in Tokyo. Works are made collectively with her approval and according to her specifications.

Why are there time limits on the Infinity Mirror Rooms?

At the request of the artist, visitors have 20 to 30 seconds to be enclosed in each Infinity Mirror Room at the CMA. Social media indicates that this gives plenty of time to snap a selfie!

Selfies inside The Obliteration Room, 2002 to present. Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b. 1929). Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Some visitors to the lounge delighted in liberally interpreting the “Ask me” buttons worn by personnel. They asked challenging questions like, “How old am I?” and “What’s the meaning of life?” In response to the latter, Leslie Cade, director of museum archives, quipped, “Art is the meaning of life!”

Beyond the sheer number of questions answered, anecdotal evidence demonstrates success. Jennifer DePrizio, director of interpretation in public and academic engagement, commented, “Not only were visitors able to learn more about Kusama through the books and biographical timeline, the lounge and the interactions with staff and docents created a welcoming space open to visitors of all ages. In a museum as large as the CMA, a comfortable space to sit and recharge can support further engagement with the collection and exhibitions.”

“Not only were visitors able to learn more about Kusama through the books and biographical timeline, the lounge and the interactions with staff and docents created a welcoming space open to visitors of all ages. In a museum as large as the CMA, a comfortable space to sit and recharge can support further engagement with the collection and exhibitions.” — Jennifer DePrizio, director of interpretation in public and academic engagement

Research and scholarly communications librarian Beth Owens observed that many people said the Kusama Lounge enriched their experience. Here are a few examples:

  • A visitor from Japan was excited to use his cellphone to share kaleidoscopic images with lounge staff that he took when he first saw Kusama’s work back home five years ago.
  • An elderly woman was enjoying her conversation in the lounge so much that when it was time for her to join the line to see the show, she told her family jokingly, “You go ahead!”
  • A couple returned repeatedly to the lounge because, as new visitors, they appreciated staff recommendations for galleries within the museum. They wanted to make the most of their outing as they had a two-week-old baby with them, and this was their first time away from home since the birth.
Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

“The Kusama Lounge was a great no-rush space for visitors to catch their breath, collect their thoughts, and consider all they’d seen (or to steel themselves to see more),” says Heidi Strean, director of exhibitions and publications. “It was fun to have the buoyancy of the exhibition conveyed through the design of the space. Plus it has given the museum an opportunity to tell visitors of all ages a fuller story about the artist and her impact.”

This post was written by Heather Saunders, Director of Ingalls Library.

Heather Saunders, Director of Ingalls Library. Photo: Howard Agriesti.

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