Yayoi Kusama at Rockaway!

NEW YORK, NY -- Rockaway Beach holds a little known gem that is now gaining major attention thanks to a leading artist. The Rockaway Artists Alliance has been around for over twenty years and has recently hosted exhibitions in the former Fort Tilden base. Most recently, it has collaborated with MoMA PS1, Bloomberg Philanthropies and other organizations to present Narcissus Garden by Japanese Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. The exhibition is the third iteration of Rockaway!, a free summer public arts festival. I attended opening day, which according to the Rockaway Artists Alliance team members, attracted more visitors than previous shows had during their entire run.

Fort Tilden has a long military history dating back to the War of 1812 as a temporary battlement. During the Great Depression, the fort was a beneficiary of government agencies like WPA, which added buildings and facilities to the base. Today, Fort Tilden is on the National Register of Historic Places and is gaining a cult following within the arts community. The former locomotive repair warehouse has been the venue for multiple world-class exhibitions, bringing positive attention to the area following the devastation that Hurricane Sandy caused in 2012.

Before Yayoi Kusama was recognized as major player in the modern art world, she had to fight for recognition. Narcissus Garden is one of the results of this effort. In 1966, when she was not invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, Kusama decided to present an unauthorized installation and performance of Narcissus Garden. Kusama lined the lawn in front of the Biennale with the then-plastic spheres, now metal, walking among them and tossing them into the air. The exhibition was marked with signs reading “Narcissus Garden, Kusama” and “Your Narcissism for Sale” reacting to the over-commercialization of art by her male counterparts, exemplified by Kusama herself peddling the mirrored balls for $2 to passersby. The current exhibition is still a poignant statement on the commercialization of the art world, possibly even more so than when it was originally exhibited.

To begin my journey to the Rockaways, I took the ferry from Pier 11 and then Ubered to Fort Tilden. To my surprise, the gallery space housing photos of the original exhibition of Narcissus Garden was empty except for the volunteers. The rustic barn-turned-gallery is a nice juxtaposition to the images of Kusama’s metallic orbs. The exhibition is organized as a timeline of Kusama’s early work with performance art, her involvement at Woodstock, and how she evolved into an installation artist.

Once I left the gallery to view the installation itself, I realized the full scope of Kusama’s draw. There was a queue that had been waiting in the hot sun for about an hour. Walking into the former railway workshop and seeing the sea of mirrored orbs take center stage was surreal. Kusama’s commentary on the over-commercialization of the art world is still as poignant today. Mirror-coated canines, flowers, ballerinas, etc., perhaps unknowingly, reflect on the work of Yayoi Kusama that foreshadowed our current reality.

Narcissus Garden

On view through September 3, 2018

Fort Tilden, New York

Credit for black and white photograph: Yayoi Kusama with Narcissus Garden (1966) installed in Venice Biennale, Italy, 1966  ©YAYOI KUSAMA. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/Venice.