From an early age, sculptor and installation artist Yayoi Kusama, better known professionally as simply Kusama, struggled to assert herself and find acceptance for her artistic impulses. Born in Japan in the late 1920s to an affluent merchant family who cared nothing for her art, she suffered abuse at the hands of her mother. She has fought a lifelong battle with depression, and has seen her ideas stolen and executed by more established artists who were lauded for their ingenuity.
Filmmaker Heather Lenz’s details the tough road Kusama traveled to make a name for herself in the art world in the face of the expectations that Japanese society placed on women and the rampant misogyny the artist encountered in both her native land and the United States. Art documentaries tend to go in two directions: One is a focus on the artist’s creations, the other is a focus on biography. Lenz does both, but there’s a strong emphasis on Kusama’s life — and it’s a story that needs to be told.
That Lenz lures the viewer with wonderfully shot views of Kusama’s installations is more than mere icing on the cake. Vibrant painted dots fill entire rooms. Galleries are chockablock with organic phallic and gourd-like sculptures, also covered in her signature dots. And there are immersive environments illuminated by enchanting light, as well as her from which the film takes its title. There’s a distinct lack of darkness in the works of Kusama that seems almost at odds with the psychological despair she has experienced. Kusama’s art is a vivid, magical, and joyful expression, yet it was done in fierce opposition to the savagery of societal expectations, autocratic attempts to censor her, and the horrors of war. In effect, her work is a protest.
Kusama rattled the public with unorthodox staged happenings in the 1960s, appearing nude in New York’s Central Park as a way of calling attention to the war in Vietnam. She even offered to have sex with Richard Nixon if he would bring the troops home. She famously officiated at the
at a Walker Street venue known as the Church of Self-obliteration. She had romantic relationships with artists Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell. But the buzz and excitement of the New York art scene took its toll, and men took gross advantage of her. Pop artist Andy Warhol was so taken with her installation work that, soon after seeing it, he adopted her style to his own ends. Time and again, white male artists appropriated her work, copying it almost exactly.
A harrowing passage describes a suicide attempt when she launched herself out of a window, one of several attempts she made to end her life. The instance led to her returning to Japan, where she became a resident of the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. The portrait Lenz presents is that of a survivor — one whose tenacity was in serving a higher purpose than survival alone. Kusama dresses in characteristic polka-dotted clothes that resemble her artwork, along with a shock of distinctive screaming red-dyed hair. She’s an artist who has outlived many of her detractors; she gained the upper hand as well as international fame by embracing and becoming what the world told her she could not. — Michael Abatemarco