Yayoi Kusama is known the world over for the exuberant and obsessive illusionism of her “Infinity Room” installations, variations of which cause otherwise reasonable people to queue up for hours at a time just to get a glimpse. That, and the fact that she voluntarily lives at a sanatorium. But the truth of her family origins in Japan, and the roller-coaster highs and lows of her early career in New York, is a much more emotionally fraught, personally and professionally difficult tale. Over the course of Heather Lenz's documentary Kusama: Infinity, a portrait emerges of this incredible talent, the author of some of the most upbeat art in recent memory, as a troubled woman, misunderstood and under-appreciated for most of her career.
With a treasure trove of historical archive materials from as early as the late 1950s, and striking present-day interviews with Kusama herself, the film is truly a picture about the artist’s life, rather than a flash-bang presentation of her work per se. As part of the game-changing downtown scene of New York’s 1960s art world, Kusama proceeded fearlessly, producing those nude performance events that made the global headlines and crashing the 1966 Venice Biennale. Her triumphant return to the Biennale in 1993 as Japan’s official representative bookends a head-shaking fall-from-grace hero’s journey in which everything goes wrong, more wrong, and then, one day, finally goes right. Along the way, the film unspools as an intimate conversation might, and the takeaway is a deeply human understanding of the untidy inner life of one of international culture’s biggest stars.
On the one hand, Kusama was the child of an affluent, powerful and high-profile family who were horrified and shamed by her refusal of arranged marriages, determination to become a painter, scandalous “escape” to New York City and subsequent proliferation of nude performance happenings and controversial anti-war protests. On the other, her reception in the New York art world once she arrived was no less fraught with professional and emotional peril. Despite frequent exhibitions with a number of respected galleries, she always felt she was being ripped off. A short but salient, gasp-inducing sequence in the film shows in rapid-fire succession — and with, so to speak, the receipts — that she is in fact the author of Oldenburg’s soft sculptures, Samaras’ mirror chambers and Warhol’s wallpapers.
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When she returns in relative obscurity to Japan, it’s a tragic injustice and that’s when, despite the evidence of her ruthless ambitions and contrarian nature, the audience really starts to root for her in earnest. Fortunately for all involved, the injustice is soon enough put right, and the artist’s journey toward the fullness of the Yayoi Kusama we know, beloved the world over, begins in earnest.