You've seen the AGO show, now see the tragic doc Kusama-Infinity

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B

Yayoi Kusama is one the most successful living contemporary artists in the world, and the most successful living female artist. And it only took her 88 years to get here.

That her life would have been different had she been born male, is one of the inescapable conclusions that the documentary Kusama-Infinity leaves you with. The documentary was co-written and directed by Heather Lenz (whose documentary short, Back to Back about a bicycle inventor, was nominated for Student Academy Award), and it’s a pretty straightforward and unflashy film, given its subject matter.  

One of Kusama's '60s New York "happenings."

One of Kusama's '60s New York "happenings."

Kusama herself was a bold and innovative visual artist who overcame a difficult childhood in Japan. And, in spite of setbacks and, possible mental illness, she never veered from creating what she saw in her mind’s eye. The drive to express herself, and her reaction to the world was pure.  And the creativity and volume of work she’s produced speaks for itself.  

A retrospective of her work, currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has been a sell-out everywhere on its tour, with ticket demand at rock concert level. It’s a scenario that, if presented to the younger Kusama as a possibility, might have saved her sanity. 
Lenz hasn’t worried about making the documentary beautiful. It’s not going to blow you away with its style nor its studied appreciation of the work. In fact the tone of the film is quiet and fairly neutral

Instead Lenz focuses on telling Kusama’s story, or rather letting friends, observers, art curators, many of them women, give us a sense of Kusama’s trials and tribulations.

Born in the small Japanese town of Matsumoto,  Kusama had a difficult relationship with her parents, and in particular her mother who was cruelly dismissive of her daughter’s artistic works. Kusama persisted and ultimately decided to move to New York, where she could express herself freely, without the restrictions she felt in her home country.

This was the ‘60s: the era of Andy Warhol, and a creative explosion in New York.  Kusama, who was overtly ambitious, and wanted to be an internationally successful artist, was able to match Warhol’s ability to insinuate herself into the art scene and create her own happenings with her trademark polka-dot motif. 

The work was there: creative, innovative, in sync with the times. But there were two problems that she couldn’t seem to overcome: racism and sexism.  Lenz compares work shown by Kusama, to work by her contemporaries which appears to be heavily influenced by Kusama’s art.  The men’s works became highly collectable art. Kusama was left out.   

In the film, Lenz shows you Kusama’s shows, and then the mimicking exhibitions of her male contemporaries.  It’s crazy-making. Was it the pain of seeing this that drove her to suicide attempts and ultimately to check herself into a mental institution in her home country? Or was all of this driven by a form of mental illness that became more pronounced as she got older?  Lenz doesn’t take a position on that.    

What we get instead is an artist who stayed true to herself and her visions and who was, ultimately, rediscovered. And now at the age of 88 has achieved the recognition she set out to have. 

Kusama herself speaks in the film, and we get an understanding of her process. It’s not just a movie that gives us a sense of how this particular artist translates her thoughts and feeling into visual arts, but gives us a sense of the artistic process itself. 

But the nut of the movie, the thing I return to again and again when thinking about it, is the issue of how much the odds were stacked against Kusama, 

Kusama-Infinity is a perfect movie for the #metoo era: A glimpse into the life of a woman with a vision who had the misfortune of being born at a time when even what was arguably the most progressive culture felt that it was just fine to ignore a woman’s voice.

Kusama-Infinity. Directed by Heather Lenz. Starring Yayoi Kusama. Now playing the TIFF Bell Lightbox.