Why It Matters

The draw of art

For three months, the queues for Japanese avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama's exhibition snaked across the halls of the National Gallery Singapore. People flew in from overseas just to get in line. Singaporeans' social media feeds filled up with polka dots, pumpkins and selfies in an infinite sea of mirrors.

Yayoi Kusama: Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow, the artist's first major museum show in South-east Asia, closed on Sunday. It pulled in more than 235,000 visitors - a record for the nearly two-year-old National Gallery.

The exhibition's success was due in no small part to the gallery's clever use of social media in marketing the selfie-friendly exhibition, even encouraging the use of an official hashtag, #sgloveskusama. At press time, the hashtag had clocked 12,639 posts.

Kusama, who at 88 years old is considered one of the world's most influential artists today, is also one of the most Instagrammable.

Gallery director Eugene Tan has said the museum's mission is "to make the arts more accessible, to engage new audiences through art and to further the understanding of art among our public".

Kusama's works, and the way the gallery showcased more than 120 of them, successfully bridged the gap between fine art and a public whose attention is ever more divided by technology.

The response demonstrates that a young local institution has the capacity to pull off a world-class blockbuster exhibition, and also that Singaporeans do have an appreciation of art, even if it sometimes happens through the filter of a smartphone.

One hopes they came away from the exhibition not just with a full cache of photos but also a deeper consideration of the issues behind the art - the stigma against mental illness in society, for instance.

The real success will be if this art encounter proves to be not just another Snapchat story that vanishes after 24 hours, but also an experience that keeps the public coming back for more in the long run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'The draw of art'. Print Edition | Subscribe