If you’re looking for a point of entry for contemporary art, but don’t know how to approach it, Kusama – Infinity is a great start. Yayoi Kusama is one of the world’s most popular artists. In fact, she is the world’s most successful living female artist, and has only continued to surge in popularity over the last few years. Kusama’s work was shown in a major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in early 2017, and included her Infinity Nets, accumulations, thousands of dots and dashes, and the Infinity Mirror Rooms. It is truly awesome to watch her star continue to rise at age 89, and as people line up for hours to see her work at a specified, ticketed time.
Her work is appealing not just for its bright colors and spots, but also for its challenge to upend the male-centered history of art as known by the wider public, and has become instantly recognizable. Clocking in under 90 minutes, the documentary Kusama – Infinity is brief, but it is also a portal into the expansive and continuing visions of a woman on a mission.
The film starts from the very beginnings of her life as a young girl growing up during WWII. She learned very quickly that her ambitions of becoming a famous artist necessitated a grander stage. Kusama challenges herself to make that which makes her uncomfortable, and face her neuroses. Her work is multidisciplinary: furniture made of spotted phalluses, mirrored installations that immerse first the person’s face amongst a galaxy of colored stars, poetry, experimental film, nets, and large-scale sculpture.
The documentary describes Kusama’s time in New York extensively, from her initial poverty and persistence, to the times her work was ripped off by more famous male artists who were fans. Her presence among artists like Andy Warhol won her attention, but not the same level of backing as the other artists displaying in the same galleries. It’s not just that her work was original, but that she too is a tremendous personality: her outfits are most easily described as loud, and much of her work centers around obsessions. Her work is fun to look at, and even more fun to experience.
In addition to all of her objects, she also produced a number of happenings across the world. Her work challenged the art world as well as simultaneous counter-cultural movements, and, the film states that she likely was among the first people to officiate marriages of same-sex couples, an action performed in public. In some ways, she was anti-pop art in the sense that she was a radical departure from the most popular work at the time, though she was far from unknown within the art world, and enjoyed critical success. It’s like when a really great “indie” musician opens for a big-name headliner.
In what is likely the most downplayed period in the film, Kusama checked herself into the hospital to begin treating her mental illnesses, and spent 20 years there before re-emerging in the late 1980s. She still lives there voluntarily, and even has her own studio.
As much as I like this movie, I do wonder why there was so little substance on this period, because she was making a lot of art. Very little of the work toward the end of the film is labeled with its title or year within the film’s edit. Kusama is involved with the film enough that I kept hoping to see more, but thankfully the film stops short of being intrusive (TMI at parts, maybe). It makes sense – she wrote her autobiography in 2003 – and she goes into detail there. If you’re really keen, you can go see her work in person in Japan. But if you can’t, watch the movie, and go see her Pumpkin at the Hirshhorn (it’s outside). Watching a movie won’t match the experience of actually going to the museum, but it is inspirational, and you should get cultured anyway.