Did Yayoi Kusama predict our selfie obsession?

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In 1966, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama gate-crashed the Venice Biennale with an installation of some 1500 reflective plastic spheres titled Narcissus Garden. She was eventually ejected by biennale officials. Kusama hadn’t been invited to exhibit in the first place and they considered the commercialism of her venture crass: Kusama was selling her shiny balls for $2 each, so visitors could continue gazing lovingly at themselves indefinitely, just as Narcissus had in the Greek myth.

It’s tempting to credit Kusama with prescience. Afterall she was commenting on the solipsistic narcissism of ‘selfie’ culture and making highly Instagram-able work long before either smart phones or the internet existed. But while the artist has readily admitted to experiencing auditory hallucinations as a child, she does not seem to have claimed to be able to see the future. If she had, she might have charged more per ball.

These days Kusama’s artworks sell for millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of gallery visitors queue for hours – and sometimes literally trip over themselves – in order to snap their own images reflected over and over again in her Infinity Mirror Rooms and gardens of reflective orbs.

Since its first outing in 1966, Kusama has restaged her Narcissus Garden many times around the world, now using stainless steel spheres instead of plastic.

On 22 March 2021 Kusama will turn 92 years old and Sydney-siders can celebrate this milestone birthday by experiencing her seminal Narcissus Garden installation in person. The public are invited to see themselves (and each other) reflected in the work at the Museum of Sydney until 18 April, and at Vaucluse House from 24 April to 23 May. And from late May to late June, Sydney Living Museums members will be offered a third chance to catch the work when Narcissus Garden is staged in the grand surrounds of Elizabeth Bay House.

Kusama’s Narcissus Garden is a tempting, perfectly Instagram-able spectacle – all shiny surfaces and multiple selves, but it’s worth remembering that the myth of Narcissus did not end well. Kusama may not have predicted the future, but her work remains a timely reminder of the dangers of self-absorption.

Narcissus Garden
Yayoi Kusama
Museum of Sydney
20 February – 18 April
Tickets essential

Vaucluse House
24 April – 23 May
Tickets essential

Tracey Clement