Kusama: Infinity

Yayoi Kusama is the world’s best-selling living female artist and arguably the most popular current artist of any gender. It was not always like this. Kusama: Infinity is the story of her long rise to fame and notoriety.

Kusama was born into a comfortably off Japanese family, who didn’t think that “good” girls should indulge in art. Her mother, in particular, believed that she should concentrate on finding a rich husband. Eventually the mother relented and let Yayoi go to art school as long as she also went to etiquette school as well. She went to one, but not the other.

In 1958, Kusama moved to New York, stifled by her family’s conservatism (but not, apparently, by their wealth. The flight from Japan at the time was not cheap, and she by-passed the ban on importing money by sewing dollars into her kimono. Although she talks of having been poor in New York, you never get the sense that she really struggled financially, and we never hear of her taking other jobs to survive).

Despite her privileged background, in New York, everything was different. Then, as now (but even more so then), the art world was dominated by white men, and she watched on as other artists, all male, stole her ideas and shot to fame. Disillusioned, she returned to Japan in the early 1970s, committed herself into a mental hospital, and became almost universally forgotten before Retrospectives in the later 1980s and early 1990s suddenly made her fashionable again.

It’s a fascinating story – which means that it is a real shame this film adds little insight to Kusama’s work. First there is the ambiguous relationship to the role of avant-garde art. I’m not sure whether this comes from Kusama herself or from the film’s director and writer Heather Lenz. Avant-garde can, and often is, popular and critically acclaimed, but when it starts actively seeking popularity and acclaim, I’m not sure how much it can be still classified as being part of the counterculture.

The film regularly praises Kusama’s ability to hustle, achieving success by befriending wealthy and influential young males and getting friends to visit galleries to order her works. This is all legitimate and possibly justified given the way in which she was systematically ignored by the Art Establishment. But her obvious desire to be embraced by wealth and fame is hardly countercultural.

Kusama organised a protest of naked people outside the opening of the Museum of Modern Art, claiming that what they showed wasn’t modern. She shocked the Venice Biennale by selling her work (glitter balls that she bought wholesale) outside. For better or worse these works shocked the Art Establishment but may help explain why they were reluctant to embrace her.

Funnily enough, the phase of her work which is most politically radical is the stuff that works least well for me. During the 1960s, the artist – who had grown up in wartime Japan – was appalled at the escalating Vietnam war and started to organise nude Happenings as a protest against the war. It is at this point that her work became infused with – please excuse the technical terms – too much Hippy Shit.

The film also seems to subscribe to the contested view that there is a direct link between artistic creativity and mental illness. Kusama Is undoubtedly a great artist, and she was (and is) deeply troubled, but her history of anxiety is treated as evidence of her artistic greatness. On more than one occasion, an early traumatic experience in a flower patch is referred to without any explanation what exactly happened.

My main gripe is that although the film gives us a potted history of Kusama, and shows us some of her works, it doesn’t try to understand or explain why they were Any Good, whether they had any relationship to the times which produced them or, indeed, if her art showed any development or regression, One critic suggested that you would get as much information reading her Wikipedia entry, and they’ve got a point.

There is plenty in Kusama: Infinity to impress – not least Kusama’s pieces of art, but surely these are better experienced in a gallery. The rest of it is all not inquisitive enough, too keen to simply state Kusama’s greatness without showing its working. It’s not bad but could have been a lot, lot more interesting.

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