The world has been gripped by Yayoi Kusama fever for years now. The 93-year-old Japanese artist is everywhere, and everyone’s cashing in: fans queue day and night for her exhibitions; the Tate’s ‘Infinity Rooms’ are sold out months in advance, despite only allowing visitors two minutes in each room; her artwork sells for millions; her polka dots are on T-shirts and tea-towels.
But that fever seems to have reached record new temperatures, and it looks like everyone’s brains have been boiled. Luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton has collaborated with Kusama – or at the very least her studio – for its latest 450-piece collection, and has decided that the best way to flog these exorbitant wares is with an army of terrifyingly lifelike animatronic versions of the artist in all of their shops, staring at visitors, waving benevolently and potentially stealing their souls.
We went down to Louis Vuitton’s New Bond Street store (there’s another one in Harrods) to see if we could withstand her withering robotic gaze, and it was as uncomfortable as you’d imagine staring at an animatronic version of a beloved (but very old and vulnerable) artist would be. Crowds of people were gathered outside the window, waiting for Robo-Kusama to lifelessly nod or wave. There was an eerie hush, punctured only by startled murmurs when the robot moved, with people taking pictures and mainly asking each other ‘who is that?’ It had the air of a medieval village freakshow, the serfs coming out to gawp at some strange new creature.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the project, though. Kusama herself doesn’t give interviews anymore, and almost never appears in public, leading plenty of commentators to accuse her studio of exploiting her for cash, selling off her artistic legacy for commercial greed. But The Wall Street Journal reported that the fashion house worked closely with the artist and her studio for over a year to make this happen. Is it exploitative? Who are we to try to give voice to Yayoi Kusama? Who are we to criticise her for cashing in on her fame, if that’s even what she’s doing? The Louis Vuitton New Bond Street store is surrounded by some of the best commercial art galleries in London, they might be selling paintings and sculptures instead of bags and blouses, but they’re still selling art. Is this really different?
Regardless of all that, seeing the Kusama robot is actually an amazing art experience. Not intentionally, I don’t think. It’s not great because it’s well-thought-through art, it’s just a marketing gimmick. It’s great because it’s so unbelievably and uncomfortably weird. Because it has made everyone say ‘how DARE they!’. Because its combination of primary-colour gaudiness and dead-eyed roboticism makes it so incredibly unappealing to look at. It’s great because it makes both Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama look tasteless and greedy and exploitative and it’s a joy to watch them jump their own shark so publicly. It’s great because we all thought the robots of the future would be indestructible killing machines here to wipe out humanity. But we were wrong. They’re here to help sell you expensive handbags. Which in many ways is much, much scarier.
Robo-Kusama is in the window of the Louis Vuitton store on New Bond Street.
Want to see art that’s not by robots (probably)? Here are the top ten shows in London.
Want non-robotic, non-expensive art? Here are London’s best (and some not so great) free exhibitions.