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It’s a daily and ever-shifting debate about whether we’re “back to normal” following the worst of COVID-19, but in-person gatherings are slowly resuming, masks are coming off, and in the surest sign of things looking up, legendary artist Yayoi Kusama is back at the Hirshhorn. One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection was originally slated to open April 4, 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Now, the museum is staging a triumphant return that displays five of Kusama’s works from their permanent collection, including two of her Insta-famous infinity mirror rooms, beginning April 1.
When Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors opened in 2017, it demolished the Hirshhorn’s previous attendance records. Around 160,000 people came just to see the exhibit in the fewer than three months it was open, pushing audience totals past a million visitors for the year. The Hirshhorn hadn’t seen numbers like that before or since, and like most museums, their attendance took a dip in 2020 and 2021. Kusama’s influence has continued to explode in the wake of Infinity Mirrors on tour—and the accompanying social media frenzy—and her comeback at the Hirshhorn is almost certain to draw massive crowds.
Knowing that gaggles of visitors are likely to flock to One With Eternity, same-day, free timed passes, available each morning at 9:30, will be required, and the exhibition design serves as a crowd control measure. The galleries are intentionally spacious, leaving lots of room for visitors to queue up for their 30-second turn inside each mirror room. To offset the opening weekend mania, the museum will be open until 8 p.m. on Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2, making for two and a half additional hours of Kusama access.
Planning in anticipation of large volumes of people is a smart move, particularly considering the fragility of “Infinity Mirrored Room — My Heart is Dancing into the Universe.” One of the few infinity rooms with an entrance and exit, viewers wander a zig zagging path through a forest of colorfully strobing (and very delicate) paper lanterns. Visitors are instructed to proceed with caution and leave their bags in nearby cubbies while passing through, which may be informed by past infinity mirror incidents: During Infinity Mirrors in 2017, a visitor damaged a gourd sculpture in one of the rooms in the course of taking a selfie.
While the infinity room selfies that proliferated during the run of Infinity Mirrors are the money shots, the ample gallery space also allows guests to pass the wait time by taking a selfie elsewhere. Describing the staging of one of Kusama’s beloved oversized sculptures, assistant curator Betsy Johnson says, “when you bring ‘Pumpkin’ indoors it becomes a full-on immersive environment.” Until recently “Pumpkin” resided outside the building; now it has been plucked from its patch and dropped into an orange, polka dotted gallery that practically begs to be used as a backdrop. You could say it’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers.
While Infinity Mirrors was more about contextualizing how the reflective rooms came about, One With Eternity is about showing key works in Kusama’s oeuvre and their importance to the Hirshhorn’s collection. The blockbuster, social media-friendly pieces are bookended by two of Kusama’s earlier works that are not to be missed, both purchased in the 1990s when Kusama’s influence was not at the height it is now. The show opens with a chamber containing a timeline of the artist’s life and achievements, and a small work on paper titled “The Hill, 1953 A (No. 30).” After getting their fill of infinity, visitors are deposited in a gallery containing “Flowers — Overcoat,” a metallic-dipped jacket blooming with plastic flowers.
While the throngs of Kusama aficionados will be much welcome after a long wait, Johnson says, “we want it to be part of a visit to the museum,” not the sole reason for a visit. For the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, all four floors of the Hirshhorn are full, and viewers can take in sweeping exhibits of Laurie Anderson, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Bradford, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Or they can get the selfie and get out of Dodge, casting a new meaning on the Kusama quote that opens the gallery: “Become one with eternity. Obliterate your personality. Become one with your environment. Forget yourself.”
One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection opens at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on April 1, and runs through Nov. 27. hirshhorn.si.edu. Free, same-day timed passes are available each day at 9:30 a.m.