Kusama – Infinity
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a great introduction to a world famous artist who is likely still a stranger to some.
With a bright red bob complimented by a stark polka dot dress, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama ends a response to a question asked off camera with a long sip of her drink and an even longer, piercing stare. She looks both eccentric and like someone who has complete control over how she will be seen. She is one of the most popular artists in the world and, in 2017, broke the record for the highest amount paid for a piece of work by a female artist. However, in her documentary, filmmaker Heather Lenz shows how this hasn’t always been the case.
Kusama’s childhood appears to have hardly been productive to a young artist’s first steps. Or perhaps it was in a perverse way. Her mother was a domineering conservative who would snatch drawings from her daughter’s hands, and deliberately send Kusama to find her father in bed with other women. As Kusama – Infinity later shows, these are the moments that are reflected in her work.
The documentary follows the 20-something Kusama as she travels from a post-war Japan to New York City where she hoped to break all the rules with regards to painting, sculpture and performance art. Lenz depicts a woman capable of owning her sexuality – Kusama admits to not enjoying sex – who was unafraid to use it in the male dominated art world. Not that this is a sordid tale of sleeping your way to the top, far from it. From the moment she steps foot on American soil, it’s clear that Kusama needs to elbow her way through the patriarchy to get seen.
As the ’60s march on, Lenz underlines times when Kusama’s work is acknowledged for its audacity, only for it to be overshadowed by male artists – like Andy Warhol – who find themselves ‘influenced’ by her work. Kusama – Infinity doesn’t outright say that they plagiarise, but the suggestion is clear. What makes it all the more frustrating is knowing how Kusama’s mental health has plagued her most of her life. Kusama talks candidly of trying to kill herself after a particularly egregious example of her work being appropriated.
At times, Kusama – Infinity is like watching an obituary for the living, both celebrating and commiserating Kusama’s time in America and her painful return to her hometown. And like an obituary, it only skims over the surface of the person in question. A fascinating watch, there’s this feeling that we could be digging deeper into Kusama’s life.
Perhaps in an attempt to give the film its happy ending, we jump forward several decades for a pencil sketch of Kusama’s life in the present. Having struggled with her depression for so long, it’ll perhaps be no surprise to read that the artist now spends her time living in a psychiatric ward closely situated to her studio. How did this come about? How does it affect her work? There’s surely a large chunk of the story missing here. It would have been interesting to hear from artists today about how and if Kusama’s work has influenced theirs. Kusama was a trailblazer and it feels appropriate that we should be able to see a few of the people who follow her path.
Taken at face value though, Kusama – Infinity is a still a great introduction to a world famous artist who is likely still a stranger to some.