SINGAPORE’S art scene is a thriving one, perpetuated in part by sufficient funding, regional clout, and a range of exciting exhibitions, events, festivals and venues.
In the last couple of months, the National Gallery Singapore has been pulling in the crowds by way of Yayoi Kusama – the rare artist with international mass appeal.
The 88-year-old Japanese artist is notorious for her sell-out shows the world over, no matter the scale. Last week, news of a new museum in Tokyo dedicated to her works was received excitedly by fans.
The Gallery’s deputy director of curatorial and collections Russell Storer told Travel Wire Asia Kusama’s show was met with anticipation since its announcement in March. Since its opening in June, the Gallery has welcomed swarms of camera-slinging visitors and tourists.
Tickets are sold by hourly slots so that the galleries don’t get congested during peak periods. On a weekend, queues of up to 90 minutes are not unusual.
“The galleries have been hugely busy every day,” Storer said. “Yayoi Kusama has been featured in group exhibitions and smaller solo exhibitions in Singapore and Southeast Asia, but there has never been a major museum exhibition of this scale in the region.”
Yayoi Kusama’s appeal
Kusama’s work is instantly recognisable through her trademark repetition of dots and colors, her obsession with pumpkins, and her photogenic “infinity” rooms.
Former art critic and Singapore resident Rachel Jena said “Yayoi’s works have a childlike charm to them and the focus is on the sensorial. Colors, material and large formats engulf, and people can have ‘fun’ with this, instead of feeling the pressure to decipher great philosophical or political meaning from the works.”
It’s this distinction that has helped Kusama cater to the masses, something few artists can brag about.
Jena said the artist’s appeal had been “amplified by more airtime in mass culture and media in the later part of her career”.
On top of that, her personal story is one that invites intrigue: Kusama has lived through some of the most important cultural events of the 20th century, and held her own as an artist in the West for many years.
Being an Asian woman in a male-dominated industry, she beat many odds to fight the patriarchy in Japan, Europe, and the US to achieve international acclaim.
In an email interview with Channel News Asia prior to the Gallery opening, Kusama said: “This strong sense of the life force in artistic expression has been my belief as an artist and it is what supported me and gave me power to overcome feelings of depression, hopelessness, and sadness.”
Owing to Kusama’s universal appeal and the outright “attractiveness” of her shows, it’s inevitable she’s a hit on Instagram. Since the opening of the Singapore show, social media has been abuzz with visitors posing against the distinguishable dots and mesmerizing “infinity” rooms.
A recent survey showed for many millennials, “instagramability” is an important factor when deciding where to travel over other factors such as price point and convenience.
A quick search of the Gallery’s geotag on Instagram is a collection of photos of visitors – some of whom are dressed in polka dots – against fanciful, oftentimes clashing, backdrops.
“It comes up over and over again, but this [Instagram] phenomenon was certainly not what we had in mind in the process of developing the show,” Storer said.
“Given the visual impact of Kusama’s work, however, it’s not surprising. It has enabled people to share their experiences and, I would say, encourage many others to visit.”
Jena, a keen observer of Singapore’s art scene, believes there shouldn’t be rules on how to appreciate art.
“Across the world, museums and other cultural institutions suffer from massive challenges like adequate funding and dwindling audience numbers, so all the photos being taken at the exhibition could have only been good news for the National Gallery,” she said.
Storer too isn’t overly concerned about visitors spending their time at the show snapping photos rather than reading the descriptors.
“There are many ways to appreciate art, from quiet contemplation to snapping selfies with the installations. What matters is that people are curious and want to know more about her works, and about art,” he said.
However, he hopes to see more visitors moving beyond Kusama’s dots to appreciate her innovations through other mediums including installation, performance, sculpture and painting, as well as learning about her art-historical and cultural significance over the past seven decades.
“We focused on the immersive and expansive nature of Kusama’s practice,” he said. “[These works] create a sense of endless space, and are a truly magical experience, in which you feel you become a part of Kusama’s personal universe.”
**This story originally appeared on our sister website Travel Wire Asia.