Kusama: Infinity has echoes of “Eternity”, that word inscribed in chalk on surfaces all over Sydney for 35 years, by the eccentric Arthur Stace. It took Martin Sharp to make Stace into a cult figure when he reproduced that distinctive cursive script on a poster, but Yayoi Kusama has been a one-woman cult since she first picked up a brush. If the world was slow to recognise her abilities, she never showed the slightest trace of self-doubt.
“There’s the work of a genius in everything I do,” she solemnly told filmmaker, Takako Matsumoto, in his 2008 documentary, Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me (AKA. I Adore Myself). It might sound even more outrageous if the current Leader of the Free World didn’t make such pronouncements on a daily basis. There’s something disarming about pathological narcissism – it’s amazing how many people seem to admire those who have unbounded admiration for themselves.
At least with Yayoi Kusama there is an unquenchable stream of artworks to justify the self-obsession. At the age of 89 she remains one of the world’s most prolific creative personalities, with a voluminous output of paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and writings. She has been filmed on innumerable occasions but Heather Lenz’s documentary is the most widely-viewed portrait so far.
One hesitates to call Kusama: Infinity the definitive bio-pic because, at a mere 76 minutes, it skims over many parts of the artist’s life that deserve closer scrutiny. It’s a highly conventional film that follows Kusama from her unhappy childhood in Matsumoto City to her days of avant-garde fame in New York, where she would reside from 1957-72. Eventually she wore out her welcome in America and Europe, and in 1973 returned to a homeland that greeted her as a national embarrassment.
Until the late 1980s Kusama was persona non grata in the Japanese art scene, but when the tide started to turn it rapidly took on tsunami-like proportions. Her inclusion in the Japanese pavilion for the 1993 Venice Biennale was the signal for a worldwide escalation in popularity that shows no signs of diminishing. Kusama, who checked herself into a mental hospital in 1977, and has remained there ever since, is now one of the world’s most famous and successful living artists.
This is Heather Lenz’s first feature-length documentary, and her inexperience shows. She creates a veneer of objectivity through the use of numerous talking heads, but views her subject through the eyes of a fan. She is impressed by Kusama’s prodigious creativity, but also by the artist’s determination to overcome the sexist and racist stereotypes that constantly worked to undermine her career. It’s a predictable tale of triumph over adversity.
This could be the plot of a Hollywood melodrama but it’s fundamentally true. There were many occasions when Kusama appears to have been treated dismissively because she didn’t fit the prevailing template for artworld glory. She contends that her ideas were ripped off by famous male artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Lucas Samaras, and there’s abundant evidence to support her case. The nude happenings she orchestrated, initially in opposition to the Vietnam War, would have their greatest impact on the Japanese, who saw only shame and disgrace.
The story that emerges is that familiar one of the misunderstood genius whose work is too far ahead of its time to be appreciated. But even in the stories recounted in this film one sees another Kusama: an outrageously selfish careerist who would do anything to achieve success. Today we can look back on her days in New York and see her as someone who spent her whole life grappling with mental illness, but this may not have been obvious when she was leading groups of naked hippies in one psychedelic publicity stunt after another.
The nether side of these years saw crippling depressions and botched suicide attempts. The public Kusama was a compulsive exhibitionist but the private persona was a horror show. She would talk freely about her fear of sex, but reacted to this fear by covering surfaces with phalluses made from fabric, and choreographing nude “orgies”, intended to shock and offend that entity quaintly termed ‘the establishment’.
Lenz underplays the degree to which Kusama alienated her friends and supporters, and tends to overstate her role as a permanent outsider. For instance there have been many accounts of the assistance she received from Donald Judd, but that relationship is swiftly passed over. Her long-running, sexless love affair with the elderly Joseph Cornell is treated as a peculiar interlude, when it deserves a much deeper examination.
The endless round of nude happenings gave everyone the impression that Kusama was addicted to sideshows and headline-grabbing gimmicks, as her credibility as an artist was absorbed by her desire for constant visibility. This is one area in which she was indisputably ahead of her time because she would have been a global sensation on social media. Today, her Infinity Roominstallations, with their mirrored surfaces, are the greatest selfie magnets in world art.
The documentary has almost nothing to say about the decade Kusama spent in obscurity, after her return to Japan. One wonders what could have been going on in the life and mind of a thwarted narcissist, a woman who had cultivated a taste for notoreity in the United States and Europe? We get an overview of the early part of Kusama’s career, and see her at work today, in her bright red wig and polka-dot dress, but that period in which she fell off the map is hardly mentioned.
The abiding paradox of Kusama’s life and art is her attempt to reconcile concepts of “self-obliteration” and the “dissolution of the ego”, with her self-proclaimed “lust for publicity”. If the repetitive Infinity net paintings and polka dots push the ego to one side, the nude happenings screamed: “Look at me! Look at me!”
Lenz’s film allows us to take a good look, but adds little to the ground already explored in Matsumoto’s documentary of 2008. The challenge remains for a filmmaker to get beneath the surface and analyse the relationship between avant-garde spectacle and genuine mental illness. No artist has raised those questions more dramatically than Kusama, a compulsive-obsessive personality who still manages to be an effective curator of her own eccentricities. We need a filmmaker who can tell us how all that disturbed psychic energy gets channelled into such prodigious feats of creativity and marketing. We need to know how the darkness of despair can power up the bright lights of celebrity.
Directed by Heather Lenz
Written by Heather Lenz, Keita Ideno
Starring Yayoi Kusama
USA, rated M, 76 mins
Published in Artist Profile 46, 2019