Film Review: Kusama: Infinity

A visually exuberant documentary that tenderly traces the enthralling career of the maverick, mentally ill Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
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An enthralling documentary directed, written and produced by Heather Lenz, Kusama: Infinity tells the story of the 89-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has only recently been widely recognized as an original, influential figure in contemporary art. Briskly paced, the film makes for a visually exuberant experience as it cuts quickly among photos and video clips of Kusama’s flashy artwork, commentary from critics, gallery owners and fellow artists (delivered both on-camera and as audio over images of Kusama’s work) and footage of the maverick artist herself. Adorned in a bright orange wig, she is frighteningly childlike in her mannerisms and speech. While Lenz proffers a commendable amount of historical evidence and diverse voices through which she traces Kusama’s career, she includes no detractors, who might have disrupted the documentary’s tender tone.

The film’s greatest strength lies in how masterfully it illustrates the connections between Kusama’s mental illness and her artwork. It is suggested that Kusama’s profoundly disturbed psyche—her OCD, fear of sex, and suicidal tendencies—is rooted in her horrid upbringing. Stuck in a dysfunctional marriage, her angry mother would send Kusama out to spy on her husband’s extramarital affairs. Kusama learned early on how to use art-making as therapy, and found she was soothed by creating works of repeated polka dots and net motifs, which remain defining elements of her art. The accumulating images reflect both her OCD—once she gets an idea in her mind, she can’t let it go—and her perception of the world—she sees everything in nature, such as stars and flowers, as existing in infinite quantities.

Kusama makes large paintings, soft sculptures, and installations with mirrors and electric lights, all characterized by extensive repetition, her attempt to express infinity. She is comforted by the belief that one’s self is eventually absorbed within infinite material atmospheres. Her 1968 film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration shows her body becoming covered with dots until it disappears into a vast polka-dot landscape.

In 1958, Kusama moved to New York to show her work and faced economic obstacles, as well as sexism and racism. It was the era of the Abstract Expressionists, when male artists like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock reigned. Those who knew Kusama then claim she worked ferociously to get ahead, aggressively seeking patrons and developing a keen sense of how to garner publicity by staging radical performance acts. She “crashed” the 1966 Venice Biennale by setting up an enormous outdoor exhibit of mirror balls, which she sold to passersby.

Kusama pioneered the use of materials and concepts that evidently inspired major artists who were acclaimed for their usage, while her influence was never acknowledged. Apparently, Claes Oldenburg only began making soft sculptures after seeing Kusama’s work in that medium, and Andy Warhol quickly adopted the use of repetition upon seeing Kusama’s art. Not getting credit for her innovations in an art world designed to support white men drove Kusama into a depression and a suicidal jump out of a window, from which she was saved by landing on a bicycle. Ironically, Kusama was comforted by the idea of melding into the obscurity of a universal infinity, yet destroyed by lack of personal recognition.

In 1976, Kusama returned to Japan and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital where she still resides. There she devotes herself full-time to art-making. In 1989, the art world began a re-evaluation of her work that led to Kusama’s current status as an internationally celebrated artist and social-media superstar. In an effort to put a happy ending on her film, Lenz underplays the lingering nature of the bias issues Kusama’s story presents. While heartwarming, Kusama’s ultimate recognition and commercial success don’t erase the gender and racial prejudices many artists undoubtedly still encounter.