This visually vibrant doco explores Yayoi Kusama's life and work — dots, dramas and daring to push boundaries all included.
Early in Kusama: Infinity, a series of black-and-white drawings and paintings take pride of place. Unsurprisingly given the documentary's subject, they're filled with dots. The artworks rank among Yayoi Kusama's earliest creations, with the Japanese icon starting her love affair with the medium — and with the circles that she repeatedly wields as a motif — when she was ten years old. Nearly eight decades later, she's still following those passions in pieces littered with dots and pumpkins, and in infinity rooms filled with orbs too. Of course, now the entire world gets to share in the eye-catching results.
The path from creatively curious child to international superstar hasn't been quick or smooth for Kusama, which is the crux of Heather Lenz's film. As a kid, Kusama's mother would snatch away her paper while she was still drawing — and even as a twenty-something, it was only writing to American artist Georgia O'Keeffe that gave her the confidence to move to the US. Virtually ignored in conservative post-war Japan, she was hardly the toast of New York when she arrived in the late 1950s. That's the reality of an artist considered a sensation in her eighties: all of that fame and acclaim only came after a lifetime of hard work.
Directing, writing, producing and editing her first full-length documentary, Lenz explores the inescapable truth at the heart of Kusama's story. In the process, she also gives viewers a Kusama 101 lesson. The dots, dilemmas and dramas flicker across the screen, furnishing a tale that's as much about the doors that wouldn't open to the young artist as it is about the boundaries that she dared to push. In Japan, she was a woman who defied convention by refusing to become a dutiful housewife. In America, she was both a woman in a male-dominated realm and a foreigner in an unwelcoming land.
Everything about Kusama's story is vital and essential — as important and affecting as staring into one of her mirrored cubes, or seeing her dots completely envelop a room. But while Kusama: Infinity clearly recognises that fact, the movie remains happy to chronicle its subject in the usual art doco manner. Experts impart explanatory narration, sometimes as talking heads. Clips showcase a feast of different pieces, spanning paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and even America's first queer wedding ceremonies. Kusama herself lends her thoughts, which are relayed as interviews as well as voiceover. There's gorgeous sights and biographical insights aplenty, but the film never quite breaks the mould in the same fashion as the artist at its core.
Thankfully, Kusama: Infinity's array of artwork works its charms. How could it not? If Kusama's pieces feel more than a little otherworldly just as they are, seeing them blown up on a big screen makes them larger than life. Colour, shape, movement, an intoxicating sense of repetition — they all dance through her creations, and through the movie as a result. As they do, one of the picture's opening remarks lingers: "I convert the energy of life into dots of the universe," Kusama offers. "And that energy, along with love, flies into the sky."
Kusama herself proves the film's other highlight, for devotees and newcomers alike. Her work may tell a thousand stories — tales that the doco's well-selected archival photographs of the artist only enhance — however there's nothing like hearing about Kusama's life, motivations and roadblocks in her own words. There's nothing like seeing her chat to the camera either, with her bobbed red hair a-blazing. First spied wearing a vibrant crimson dress peppered with white polka dots while standing in front of one of her monochrome circle-filled drawings, she provides an instant visual reminder of why her art strikes a chord. It might be impossible to capture the enigma that is Kusama in one 85-minute documentary, but her inimitable allure is evident every time the artist herself brightens up the screen.
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