A documentary by Heather Lenz. Rated PG
No doubt: this portrait of Japan’s Yayoi Kusama is exhaustive, in some ways as meticulously detailed as her artworks’ dizzying galaxies of polka dots. Yet the eccentric subject remains an enigma to the end—and whether this bothers you may have a lot to do with how easily you can accept the mysteries of her art.
If you’ve travelled to Seattle or Toronto in the past year, you’ve likely caught wind of the hype surrounding Kusama’s immersive Infinity Mirrors exhibit. And director Heather Lenz’s complex portrait of the art star fills in the much-needed context behind the masses’ endless Insta selfies with Kusama’s mind-bending works.
The most striking revelation is that the Tokyo-based octogenarian hasn’t always been famous—not even close. And Lenz, armed with a wealth of archival photographs, film, and typewritten letters, details all the sexist, racist forces that stood in her way. Some of the most fascinating material comes at the beginning of Kusama’s life, growing up in a tradition-bound household with a mother who rips up her drawings and holds her paints and papers hostage, all recounted matter-of-factly by the artist.
From here, Lenz traces the wild artistic journey of Kusama in the heady 1960s and ’70s scene of New York City. To her credit, the director provides space to take in Kusama’s striking work, from room-filling fabric phalluses to dazzling abstract paintings. Leaning heavily to the art-historical, she’s gathered a wealth of art experts to provide context. The main argument here is that Kusama’s radical ideas were often borrowed by male colleagues (including Andy Warhol) who went on to fame and fortune while she languished in poverty. It was quite literally enough to drive her mad.
Lenz finds Kusama today ensconced in a Tokyo studio just down the street from the psychiatric hospital where she lives, working feverishly at her drawing table and sporting wild polka-dot dresses to match her scarlet and fuchsia wigs. What we understand is she’s a severely driven woman with boundless stores of creativity; she sometimes leaves this plane of reality as she works; and the infinite has special meaning to a woman who’s attempted suicide twice. We know all this, all the facts of her life, but she feels unreachable—as unknowable as the universes she depicts.