Travel

This Gigantic, Trippy Art Show Is About to Take Over Your Instagram

Artist Yayoi Kusama is transforming the New York Botanical Garden into a multisensory fantasyland.

Always match your flowers to your outfit. | Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.
Always match your flowers to your outfit. | Courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama once described a vivid hallucination from her childhood in the postcard-perfect mountains of Matsumoto: “I used to carry my sketchbook down to the seed-harvesting grounds,” she recalled. “I would sit among beds of violets, lost in thought. One day I suddenly looked up to find that each and every violet had its own individual, human-like facial expression, and to my astonishment they were talking to me...”  

In her vision, this chatty sea of flowers expanded as far as the eye can see—endless dots moving, widening, and engulfing everything around them including, eventually, Kusama herself. She called it “self-obliteration.”

The artist replicated these hallucinations in her sketchbook, and later in her paintings, sculptures, and installations. Iconic works like her yellow, polka-dotted Pop Art pumpkins and her infinity rooms—where visitors step in or look through a peephole at a mirrored, endless abyss of patterns and lights—earned her recognition amongst the NYC art set like Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. But the advent of social media has catapulted her to a new level of fame, because if you’ve seen her works (and you probably have) you know: They look really, really cool on Instagram.

Kusama has said that she finds pumpkins “visually humorous.” Just look at these jokers. | Photo courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

This year you can get more fodder for your feed: The massive, multisensory exhibit Kusama: Cosmic Nature will take over the New York Botanical Garden from April 10 through October 31st (tickets are now on sale). The exhibit was postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the timing seems even better now: Kusama’s exploration into the reflective aspects of nature—and finding infinite possibilities within confined spaces—are themes we’ve become intimately familiar with in the past year.

The 250-acre outdoor space in the Bronx will be transformed into a manifestation of Kusama’s vast imagination, with larger-than-life sculptures and immersive installations nestled within the botanical garden like some surreal Alice in Wonderland set.

Stand next to these and pretend you're in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." | Walter Cicchetti/Shutterstock

Pose under the giant fiberglass flowers of Hymn of Life: Tulips. Peer into the 1,400 reflective spheres of the Narcissus Garden. Step into The Infinity Mirrored Room—Illusion Inside the Heart to be greeted by an inexhaustible chasm of… well, you’ll have to find out. It’s one of four brand new never-before-seen, site-specific works. 

Other new pieces include the Dancing Pumpkin, a 16-foot tall gourd immersed in a landscape of flowering plants, ferns, birches, and topiaries inspired by the sculpture (we hope it’s just a row of pumpkins); and I Want to Fly to the Universe, a 13-foot tall, polka-dotted biomorphic form that has its very own yellow face. 

The fourth new unveiling is Flower Obsession, the artist’s first-ever obliteration greenhouse. For the unfamiliar, Kusama’s  “obliteration rooms” are meant to replicate the physical experience of being engulfed by hallucinatory dots. Visitors are handed a sheet of stickers to decorate the space—empty at first, inundated by the end. This time, the blank canvas is a glass greenhouse, which visitors will plaster with flower stickers over the course of the exhibition.

Kusama's ALONE, BURIED IN A FLOWER GARDEN will be replicated with plants. | Photo courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

And in the ultimate marriage of art and horticulture, a floral replica of Kusama’s bold, patchwork-like painting ALONE, BURIED IN A FLOWER GARDEN (2014) will be a living piece designed by NYBG horticulturists, with plantings changing seasonally. Come in April and experience it one way, visit again in October and—like many pieces on the grounds—it will offer a totally different experience as new textures, colors, and plantings are introduced. 

The exhibition is by far the most gigantic spectacle of Kusama’s works to date—the culmination of a rollercoaster career that eventually saw the artist moving back to Japan and checking herself into a mental institution in 1977, where she still voluntarily lives today. Now 92, she’s considered the world’s most popular artist—at least according to museum attendance stats (thanks, Internet)—and the lines to see her hallucinatory works can seem like hallucinations themselves. Which is to say, you should get your timed tickets for the exhibition like, now.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She too finds pumpkins hilarious.
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