A new doc­u­men­tary traces the trou­bled his­tory and in­spired ta­lent of Yayoi Kusama, long be­fore In­fin­ity Mir­rors and art star­dom.

The 89-year-old artist achieved celebrity de­spite a dif­fi­cult child­hood, men­tal ill­ness, and the deeply in­grained prej­u­dices of the art world

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY JANET SMITH

Amid all the dizzy­ing, looped-and-dot­ted works that Amer­i­can direc­tor Heather Lenz has man­aged to cap­ture in her new doc­u­men­tary Kusama—in­fin­ity, per­haps noth­ing stands out so much as im­ages of the artist to­day in her Shin­juku stu­dio.

In­ter­viewed in the film, the 89-year-old Yayoi Kusama sports a signature scar­let bobbed anime wig and hot-pink polka-dot­ted dress, sit­ting with her marker at a draw­ing ta­ble, and set against the re­cent cre­ations on her wall—a sea of blackand-white spots and jaggedy lines.

“The bound­ary be­tween Yayoi Kusama and her art is not very great,” Lenz tells the Straight from her home in Orange County. “They are one and the same.”

It was as a young stu­dent ma­jor­ing in art his­tory and fine art that Lenz was first drawn to Kusama— who stood out as one of few fe­male artists in her text­books. She saw an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated ta­lent whose avant-pop works an­tic­i­pated Andy Warhol and oth­ers. And as Lenz dug deeper into the artist’s story, she found a wo­man whose strug­gles with a dif­fi­cult child­hood and men­tal ill­ness made her achieve­ments all the more re­mark­able.

To­day, Kusama is one of the world’s most cel­e­brated fe­male artists, her kalei­do­scopic, mul­ti­room show In­fin­ity Mir­rors draw­ing throngs of vis­i­tors to gal­leries like the Art Gallery of On­tario and the Seat­tle Art Mu­seum over the past year. But when Lenz set out to make her film 17 long years ago, few had ever heard of Kusama.

“Had I won the lot­tery, at a cer­tain point I might have made the film sooner,” Lenz quips. “At a cer­tain point you put so much time and ef­fort and money into it, it’s hard to turn back.…it’s not easy to ap­ply for grants if an artist isn’t fa­mous.”

Lit­tle by lit­tle, Lenz put to­gether the fund­ing she needed to pay for travel to Ja­pan, to gain the rights to Kusama’s art­works, and to hire trans­la­tors, be­cause Kusama prefers to do in­ter­views in Ja­panese. It wasn’t un­til 2007 that she was fi­nally able to meet the artist, af­ter study­ing con­ver­sa­tional Ja­panese and eti­quette.

“But when I met her she ex­tended her hand and was very pleas­ant,” Lenz re­calls. “And I told her it was the hap­pi­est day of my life.”

Kusama, who worked her way into the New York City art scene from 1957 to 1972, has con­tin­ued to pro­duce work in her Tokyo stu­dio since the mid1970s. It’s two blocks from the men­tal hospi­tal where she lives by choice.

“To me, it is the ul­ti­mate tri­umph that she found this place where she’s able to fo­cus on some­thing she loves to do all day long,” Lenz says. Still, she won­ders if Kusama would be here at all if her path had been dif­fer­ent— an idea echoed by the small army of cu­ra­tors and col­leagues she in­ter­views in the film. “Had she got­ten the suc­cess that her white male col­leagues did sooner, would she be in this place?” she asks. “What is the im­pact of some­one get­ting beaten down over and over?”

Lenz cel­e­brates Kusama’s vast, pro­lific range in her film, from the polka- dot pop art and mir­rored rooms she’s best known for to the phal­lic soft sculp­tures and in­tri­cate ab­stract paint­ings she cre­ated in the ’60s.

But it’s Kusama’s in­ner drive that speaks to her most. It’s the de­fi­ance Kusama showed as a child when her mother took her art sup­plies away; it’s the re­solve she dis­played when she first wrote a let­ter to Ge­or­gia O’ke­effe, who went on to give her on­go­ing ad­vice; and it’s the stub­born­ness she sum­moned when she’d com­plain about her work get­ting poorer hang­ing space than her male col­leagues’ in the 1960s.

“It’s her will and am­bi­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed,” says Lenz, who clearly showed sim­i­lar tenac­ity in get­ting this doc­u­men­tary made. “You see that in the film, when she comes to New York as a wo­man— and frankly, there are par­al­lels to Hol­ly­wood right now. It’s her ab­so­lute re­fusal to give up and re­fusal to be­lieve that she’s any­thing less than her male peers. She doesn’t take no for an an­swer.”

Kusama—in­fin­ity closes the DOXA Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val on Sat­ur­day (May 12) at SFU Wood­ward’s (7 p.m.) and the Vancity Theatre (9 p.m.)

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