She’s the 89-year-old Japanese artist commanding blockbuster crowds around the world, with exhibition-goers queuing hours to experience her Infinity Mirror Rooms – Yayoi Kusama is as close to bonafide rock star status in the art world as it comes, with her own dedicated museum in Tokyo. Now, after seven decades of wooing audiences and critics alike with her polka-dot paintings and pumpkin sculptures, a new documentary film Kusama – Infinity finally attempts to encapsulate the renegade artist’s career, vision, and life in 76 minutes.
But where do you start with an artist – or any person for that matter – whose life has followed the dizzying trajectory of Kusama? Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, Japan, she was the youngest of four of an affluent but volatile family. Her parents were the product of an arranged marriage. Kusama’s adulterous father was largely absent, while her mother was a physically and emotionally abusive wife who would often send her daughter to spy on his sexual affairs. As a result, Kusama developed an aversion to sex and the male body as an adult (her only known romantic relationship – that with artist Joseph Cornell – was celibate).
At age ten, Kusama began experiencing vivid hallucinations, and started using watercolours, pastels and oils to paint polka dots and repeated net motifs to cope with her visions. The budding artist was just 13 years old when she was sent to work in a military factory sewing parachutes for Japan’s Second World War efforts. Her adolescent years were spent entombed in darkness as the sound of conflict raged outside, which would later compel Kusama to create several anti-war artworks.
Still, she channeled her relentless personal tumult to become the top-selling female artist in the world along the way – no easy feat given the gender and racial bias inherent in the art establishment. It was the artist Georgia O’Keefe who would inspire Kusama to relocate the US after the Japanese artist reached out to her by letter. In 1958, Kusama settled in New York, where her Infinity Net paintings garnered her critical acclaim.
Since 1977, she has voluntarily been living in a psychiatric asylum in Tokyo, working from her studio located opposite the hospital. Kusama’s practice spans painting, sculpture, installation, poetry, and performance art. Known for her outré personal style, the artist has also shown a keen interest in fashion. In the 1970s she made ‘orgy’ garments — to be worn by several people at once. More recently, her forays into fashion have included collaborations with the likes of Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.
Kusama – Infinity has been treated with deft sensitivity by director and producer Heather Lenz, who first became interested in the Japanese artist while studying art in the early 1990s. The film doesn’t gloss over Kusama’s hardships or paint her as a victim of her neurosis and adolescent traumas, and nor should it. If anything is to be gleaned from the documentary, Kusama is strong, savvy – a survivor who shaped an infinite universe of dots in her own image. §