Can we no longer look at walls? How our consumption of art is changing

Yayoi Kusama pictured with LOVE IS CALLING at David Zwirner, New York in 2013. (Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/ Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/ Venice)

By Youmna Sukkar
Boston University News Service

Enter Yayoi Kusama’s infinity room, “LOVE IS CALLING,” a dark, mirrored space illuminated by kaleidoscopic stalagmites and stalactites. It’s reminiscent of a cooler, younger Jeita Grotto but is housed in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston instead of Beirut.

It’s wondrous, to say the least, and an opportunity to be immersed in what Kusama does best: polka-dots, daring aesthetics, and rainbow motifs. 

Boston has recently been welcoming interactive exhibitions like Kusama’s with open arms. The Kusama exhibit reopened on Oct. 16 after a 17-month hiatus, and follows the opening of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” earlier this month. 

As the way people consume art continually evolves, galleries are slowly taking down tableaus to devote spaces for immersive experiences of lights, color, and animation. 

The Museum of Modern Art in New York describes this phenomenon of change as “Art as a Verb.” Since the 1970s and 80s, artists have turned to immersive installations to prove that art is not limited to static objects on the wall or floor, rather are active agents within the artistic process. 

“Some people think it’s just fun and entertainment. It’s certainly a lot more than that,” said Ellen Winner, a professor at Boston College who specializes in the psychology of art. “It allows us to feel powerful emotions in a safe space.”  

That safe space means being caged between four walls and becoming part of the installation by “dissolving one’s place in the universe to connect with others,” a press release from the ICA regarding the exhibit stated.

Museum curators hope that these immersive exhibits will promote a sense of togetherness — a sentiment much needed after the atomism of COVID-19. 

“We are so happy to be able to offer audiences the ability to experience this beloved artwork from our collection and once again share Kusama’s universal message of love and human connection,” said Jill Medvedow, a director at the ICA, in a press release.

The intimate space hosting “LOVE IS CALLING” will accommodate up to six people at a time and has already sold out on multiple days. 

Masked attendee at Yayoi Kusama’s “LOVE IS CALLING” installation. (Photo by Mel Taing)

According to Winner, the demand makes sense.

“People were turning to the arts more during COVID than they were pre-COVID because it was a source of emotional regulation,” Winner said. “[Art] is very good for our wellbeing and enhances our positive feelings.” 

After months of hibernation, society is relishing in art that is both conspicuous and inviting. The pause on commercial creativity has made us “impatient,” Winner said, thus relating our hunger for instant gratification to a sensory overload. 

“We’ve just become screen-addicted,” she added. 

Winner also discussed how, today, the ordinary museum-goer seems to be more interested in documenting their experience rather than embracing the moment.

“[These exhibitions] are like screens because of the projection of light and I don’t think we have to condemn it; you just have to realize that,” she said. 

But when art cannot provide a timeless shelf-life like a painting or sculpture, consumption can feel different, too. 

These immersive exhibits elevate the intimacy between art and consumer. They provide an insight into the minds of artists like David Hockney or James Turrell, who have taken advantage of this new medium in a way that art bound by a frame might not have been able to. 

Unlike traditional exhibitions, however, there is a childlike sensibility that proves consistent in immersive ones. 

“It reminds me of walking through a toy store and looking at the things I really enjoy,” said “LOVE IS CALLING” ticket holder, Adam Eldessouky. 

At art installations created by teamLab, an art collective from Tokyo, visitors are encouraged to lie on the floor and touch the interactive walls. German artist Carsten Höller wants visitors to experience, “an emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness,” by whizzing down his slides installation, “Test Site.”

However, there exists a legitimate anxiety that we will no longer be able to look at artistic masterpieces in the same way we once did. 

“Why don’t you just go do it the old-fashioned way?” Winner said, blaming her resistance to change on a “conservative feeling.”

Eldessouky felt differently, though. “I think they are two different things,” he said. “They both have their place in the museum.” 

Of course, these sorts of playful exhibitions will never match the grooves and strokes on a Van Gogh canvas and will, at some capacity, reach a saturation point, but they do inspire conversation, they flesh out crowds, and, admittedly, they help elevate the ordinary selfie. 

But beyond the whimsical enchantment of artistic animation and immersion, the popularity of these exhibits show that people want to consume art differently. We are subliminally searching for different art mediums: art that will challenge us, enrage us, soften us because art is everywhere. As Professor Winner insists, “There is no human culture without art.”

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