Yayoi Kusama in Jakarta: She'll be your mirror

by Mark Thompson

Staff Writer

I’ve been flown to Jakarta to see a major exhibition of Japanese superstar artist Yayoi Kusama, and a few things stand out while moving through the city’s crowded streets.

Amid clusters of dilapidated tin-roofed buildings are prominent signs of a boom town. The skyline looks like an architect’s playground, punctuated by a helter-skelter mix of futuristic high rises.

Constant reminders of the upcoming Asian Games are everywhere — at the airport, along the highway, on the temporary walls of the many construction sites. Indonesia is clearly proud to be hosting the Asiad in August, for the first time since 1962.

Then there’s the sludge-like traffic, ranked among the world’s worst. A study estimated that Jakartans spent 22 days in traffic jams last year. Just how, I wonder, will those thousands of spectators and athletes get to the events on time?

Perhaps they’ll take a train on the planned metro system, which has been partially funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and equipped with a dozen Japanese-built carriages. It’s slated to launch just in time for the games, but it looks like it’ll go down to the wire.

Or maybe the time-strapped will just hail one of the many motorbike taxis. As they swarm around gridlocked cars, I can’t help noticing the Grab logo on the helmets of passing bikers. This Uber rival is clearly dominating the huge market for speedy transportation here.

I later learn that this harbinger of the startup economy is a lead sponsor of “Life is the Heart of a Rainbow,” the Kusama exhibition being shown at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, the first retrospective of the artist the country has ever hosted. In the scheme of things, the alliance with Grab makes sense.

“We do share those similarities in terms of wanting to have things accessible to people,” explains Aaron Seeto, the director of Museum MACAN.

Indeed, the museum’s stated mission is to bring more contemporary art to Indonesia and help more Indonesian art get out into the world. It wants to educate the public and foster both local artists and contemporary art appreciation in general.

Museum MACAN Director Aaron Seeto and Fenessa Adikoesoemo, chairwoman of the MACAN Foundation, pose in front of Yayoi Kusama
Museum MACAN Director Aaron Seeto and Fenessa Adikoesoemo, chairwoman of the MACAN Foundation, pose in front of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Narcissus Garden.’ | MARK THOMPSON

Its inaugural exhibition — titled “Art Turns, World Turns,” which opened in November 2017 — was deemed a roaring success that put Jakarta on the global map of contemporary art.

However, the Kusama show, which includes more than 130 works and spans almost seven decades of the prolific octogenarian’s career, is a guaranteed blockbuster. Curated by staff at the National Gallery Singapore and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, it was shown in those cities, to great success, before making its final stop in Jakarta.

The advantages of booking this living legend are undeniable, but there’s another reason behind the decision: “Kusama is deep in the collection,” explains Seeto.

A portion of the museum’s collection — about 800 local and overseas works assembled by the founder, businessman Haryanto Adikoesoemo — comprised MACAN’s inaugural exhibition. Make no mistake: For Haryanto, the son of a self-made billionaire, art is not only a passion but also a financial investment.

“There are things that (Adikoesoemo) likes, and things that he doesn’t like,” says Seeto, “but it was about 10 years ago, when he started thinking about making a museum, that perhaps his collection strategy slightly changed.”

In short, Adikoesoemo is widening his vision to fill the gaps in his portfolio so the museum can show the evolution of artists’ careers in future shows.

Over the past decade, Kusama has become what collectors call a blue-chip artist — a very bankable investment. She dwells well above her peers in terms of total sales by living female artists, and sits at No. 9 on the 2017 ranking of the world’s top 25 contemporary artists, the sole living woman on the artnet Analytics list.

Like many of Japan’s creative icons, Kusama had to first go overseas — to the fecund art scene of 1960s New York — before finding recognition back at home. And global fame didn’t come overnight.

But now Kusama is undisputedly Japan’s biggest art export and an audience magnet for museums around the world. Beginning with major retrospectives in New York, London and Paris in 2011 and 2012, her polka-dotted star has risen swiftly. An annual ranking of most well-attended exhibitions in 2014 named her the most popular artist of the year.

This past year, she took North America by storm with an exhibition that toured major cities. Then, earlier this year, Kusama mania hit fever pitch as her hometown of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, launched a massive show and the Yayoi Kusama Museum opened in Tokyo to much fanfare. (Not surprisingly, it’s fully booked until August. Act fast if you want these hot tickets.)

Of course, the universality and accessibility of Kusama’s themes make her an easy sell. But, for better or for worse, Instagram has also had a large hand in her exponential growth.

Fittingly, the first work in the museum’s main room is “Narcissus Garden” (1966/2018), where the floor is filled with mirrored globes and, in a nearby wall-size photo, a young Kusama seemingly floats among them. As the viewers walks through the bed of orbs, their reflections are distorted and replicated.

In the Infinity Rooms, mirrors serve to reflect her signature motifs — be it pumpkins or points of light — and the viewers peering at them; but also, when facing each other, they offer a glimpse of an endless space that is both exhilarating and discombobulating.

It was hard to find a visitor who wasn
It was hard to find a visitor who wasn’t snapping the Kusama retrospective on a smartphone. | MARK THOMPSON

While it might be ironic that an introspective recluse has become a social media darling, the reality is that Kusama’s dots, nets and pumpkins have become the selfie background of choice. Not unlike much of her art, photos bearing the #yayoikusama hashtag are being echoed across a global grid of screens.

Indonesia, by the way, has the most active Instagram users in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s 56 million, 32 million more than Japan’s figure. Add Kusama, stir in key influencers and boom: yet another Instasensation.

At the MACAN’s well-attended opening on May 8, the line to get in snaked the full length of the museum lobby, and inside it was hard to find a visitor who wasn’t documenting the event on a smartphone.

In the Obliteration Room, where audience participation is crucial, the snapping reached almost hysteric levels. Visitors were given a sheet of multicolored dots and invited to decorate the white interior, but many chose to place the dots on themselves and say “cheese.”

Appropriately, like other venues that have faced the Kusama effect, MACAN is limiting the daily visitors to 3,000 and staggering that batch in five time slots. (But unlike others, the Jakarta museum has sequestered “explicit” photos of Kusama’s nudity-filled happenings from the ’60s in a special age-restricted room.)

“I think (the social media phenomenon) is really going to be fascinating, and I think the challenge is really, how does it turn into some kind of experience beyond the purely surface,” says Seeto. “It’s not just our challenge. It’s a much broader cultural challenge that we face.”

While some people argue that social media is helping to promote museums and artists, there’s an equal amount of concern about the potential harm it brings to the art-viewing experience and the works themselves.

A visitor to the Kusama show at the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition in Washington made the news last year after unwittingly stumbling into one of her signature pumpkins while taking a photo.

And indeed, the social media “challenge” Seeto spoke of manifested itself not long after the MACAN show opened. According to The Jakarta Post, a Museum MACAN volunteer uploaded photos of “Instagram slaves” running amok. While the museum quickly denied claims of damage to the works, the posts had already reverberated across Indonesia’s social media landscape.

It’s hard to imagine that Kusama — transfixed by her obsessive yet therapeutic replication of hallucinations — could have ever foreseen this 21st-century phenomenon, but her immersive, self-reflecting mirrored rooms are an apt representation of our milieu. Evidence of our vanity is inescapable.

While she speaks about the power of love in her titles, could the object of that affection be ourselves?

“Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow” runs at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, Jakarta, until Sept. 9. See for more information.

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