Available on DVD Mon 10 Dec 2018

Kusama: Infinity is a fascinating film about the life and work of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama born in 1929. Directed by Heather Lenz, it follows the traditional format of such documentaries with a host of famous ‘talking heads’, such as gallery directors from the Tate, colleagues and Kusama herself. It charts her origins and upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan and primarily her dedication and determination which went mostly unnoticed before her consequent move to the US.

The development of her work is examined and contextualised: connections are sought between real life events and landscapes; her internal psychology (she underwent Freudian analysis and currently lives in a psychiatric hospital); and the thematic strands of her work. Beginning with the ‘net’ pieces inspired by seeing the pattern of fishing nets spread out on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the movie goes on to describe her love of dots (“I covered myself in polka dots until I disappeared”), chairs covered with white protuberances, the famous kaleidoscopic ‘infinity mirrors’ rooms, and ends with the current collages and larger-than-life sculptures reminiscent of Joan Miro.

She was at the forefront of artistic/ political activism, having lived through the Vietnam War when she said,“I thought it was wrong, why send this beautiful [human] body to war”. During the more conservative Nixon era there was very little support for contemporary art, never mind female artists on the cutting edge, but it didn’t deter her from taking a stance, responding with art and poignant and plaintive poetry. 

There is a great deal of often compelling historical footage, particularly of her wonderful ‘happenings’. In ‘Narcissus Garden’ she hawked mirror balls for 2$ outside the Venice Biennale. When the police tried to move her on, she stripped off her kimono revealing a red bodysuit and posed amongst the balls, never being one to miss out on a photo opportunity.

We are shown the letters between Kusama and Georgia O’Keefe from whom she asks advice early on; we see her in a non-sexual relationship with the famous artist Joseph Cornell (27 years her senior) who called her his princess; and hear how Frank Stella was the first to buy her artwork for $75 (subsequently sold on for $750,000). 

There is not much to criticise: she is described as touting her work “aggressively”, such terms being used repeatedly about her intense resolution to get her work seen. It is hard to know who was speaking at any one time, but is questionable whether the language used to convey her behaviour would have been used for a male artist.

Nowadays she is feted and the feature opens and closes with her sporting a magenta bob and matching spotted dress, painstakingly painting massive art in primary colours, full of symbols and, of course, dots.