By Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03) for JQ magazine. Stacy is a professional Japanese writer/interpreter/translator. She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations in the periodic series WITLife.
I’ve always been an admirer from afar of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dotted and pumpkin themed artwork, but I have never waited hours in line to see it, as many New Yorkers did when her mirrored “Infinity Room” made it to the city last year. This lack of intimate knowledge regarding her work is perhaps why I found the new film Kusama: Infinity about this amazing 89-year-old artist to be so revelatory. Clocking in at just 78 minutes, this documentary from director Heather Lenz is deceptively compact. Within its swift running time, viewers will be regaled with how Kusama overcame impossible odds to become the top-selling female artist in the world.
Born into a dysfunctional family in Matsumoto City in northern Nagano Prefecture, Kusama grew up during World War II. Her father was unfaithful and her mother’s reaction to this was to become angry and violent, even destroying Kusama’s artwork which she began creating at age 10 (the film suggests that this trauma is behind the maniacal energy that Kusama channels into her creations). Interestingly enough, her mother agreed to let her attend art school on the condition that she attend finishing school as well, but Kusama never set foot in the latter.
I had known that she spent time in New York, but the story of how she got here was fascinating. Kusama respected Georgia O’Keefe, and sent her a letter along with some of her works. After receiving a reply, in 1958 Kusama came to New York on a wing and a prayer. Before she left Japan she burned most of her early works, promising to make better ones in the future. During her time here she met legendary artists like Andy Warhol and Donald Judd, the former of whom she was distraught to later find had stolen her work. Kusama got caught up in the spirit of the 1960s counterculture and was involved in many “happenings,” such as bodypainting festivals and anti-war demonstrations. She even crashed the Venice Biennale exhibition in 1966 with an installation of 1,500 mirror balls on the lawn outside the pavilion, clad in a red leotard amongst them. Despite the double punch of sexism and racism that Kusama faced, she managed to make a name for herself.
In Japan she was viewed as a rabble-rouser, and when Kusama moved back home in 1973 she struggled to survive in its conservative society. Mental illness had haunted her throughout her life, but she had been able to deal with her childhood trauma and other demons via her devotion to art. However, in 1976 Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital, where she still lives and from where she walks to her nearby studio to work. After a prolonged stagnant period she returned to New York in 1989 for a solo exhibition, and in 1993 she represented Japan in the Venice Biennale, her first time officially attending after her stunt decades earlier. Perhaps most vindicating was her 2002 solo exhibition commemorating the opening of her hometown art museum; Matsumoto, which had previously shunned her, finally gave her a hero’s welcome. In 2017, her namesake museum opened in Tokyo (a rarity for a living artist), establishing a permanent site for the display of her works.
Kusama’s inspiring story is a healing balm during these troubled times. Make sure to stick around until the very end of the film, as important details about her life are interspersed amongst the credits, including a picture of Kusama finally meeting O’Keefe, with whom her correspondence continued throughout the years.
Editor’s note: A documentary of another renowned contemporary Japanese artist, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, is now streaming exclusively on the cinema platform MUBI. Since making its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, it has achieved widespread acclaim, being named a Critic’s Pick by the New York Times and grossing more than $100,000 to date, a landmark achievement for a film released theatrically by a streaming platform. To watch, visit https://mubi.com/showing/ryuichi-sakamoto-coda.
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