“Kusama: Infinity,” a whimsically crafted documentary following top-selling female Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, explores every brushstroke of her career and dark corner of her deeply afflicted mind. The film’s attention to visual detail, combined with a vibrant storyline, makes “Kusama: Infinity” a riveting watch.
The film, directed by Heather Lenz, begins with Kusama’s origins in Matsumoto, Japan, and follows her turbulent rise to artistic prominence. Kusama adds commentary throughout the film; she looks surreal in her bright red wig and polka dot clothing, yet one cannot help but take her seriously when she discusses her art.
Kusama does not integrate herself into the fabric of society; her creation of a world that suits her perfectly and defiance of every setback — even suicide, which she attempted twice — is inspirational.
Kusama’s work penetrates other dimensions. Her “infinity nets” and “infinity rooms” — endless geometric patterns — demonstrate her focus on breaking the rules of the natural world in her art. The documentary shows many of her light and mirror installations; the exhibits have no detectable end and perception dissipates into endless twinkling lights. Polka dots are the strongest motif in her many works — and are prevalent throughout the documentary — because they make her “eyes light up.”
The documentary wonderfully counterbalances the vibrancy in Kusama’s work by delving into her dark side. It does not tiptoe around her depression, and among all her appearances in the B-roll, Kusama is smiling perhaps once.
In conjunction with her personal accounts, the documentary presents Kusama as a woman of immense talent trapped in the interim between her perception of the world and the strict confines of reality. Her suppression eventually translated to radicalism, which manifested as protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. When this radicalism brought scorn from both the New York artist community and her family in Japan, Kusama returned to Tokyo to start anew.
In Tokyo, Kusama fell into an emotional and professional abyss. She emerged from her misery with the help of Akira Tatehata, the commissioner for the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, who brought her to Italy to show her work to the world.
Kusama moved away from darker pieces back to her signature electric creations of color and shapes. Despite this shift, Kusama remains a glowering, tormented artist. “Kusama: Infinity” perfectly conveys the extent to which art has saved Kusama’s life, while simultaneously showing the darker sides of her psyche.
Cinematically, “Kusama: Infinity” is beautifully made. The B-roll of Kusama’s personal photos and art is integrated seamlessly into the narration, and the overlay of her light installations makes the film literally twinkle.
The duration of the film, about an hour and a half, is ethereal in its creative composition and melancholy detail of Kusama’s career and life. Even when people are talking to the camera, the backgrounds are Kusama’s paintings. Not a second of the film is devoid of art; Lenz successfully and impressively organizes numerous art pieces to seamlessly reflect Kusama’s personal journey.
Kusama is now the world’s most commercially successful living female artist. That statement rings more powerfully after watching the bitter path on which life led her to finally reach her dreams. Kusama is still painting furiously at the age of 89 because she wants to “live forever.” Luckily, her work and this documentary immortalize her.
“Kusama: Infinity” is currently in theaters, and Kusama’s sculpture, “Pumpkin,” is on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It looks like Kusama finally has the recognition she deserves.