Now the most expensive living female artist (when Infinity Nets sold in 2014 for over US $7 million), however recognition has been a long time coming for artist Yayoi Kusama. A new documentary Kusama – Infinity gives us an insight into the career and history of this fascinating octogenarian artist. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Heather Lenz about her central subject and the art that inspired her.
What drew you to making a documentary about Kusama?
My undergrad degrees are in Art History and Fine Arts, and at the time I was doing my Art History degree we barely learned about any women. So I was introduced to her work doing sculpture class and l was very intrigued by it. At the time there was only one catalogue about her, and I thought her contributions to the American art world hadn’t been properly understood or recognised. Then I read more about her story, and how she was living in a psychiatric hospital… I thought she was someone that was an intriguing character and had led an interesting life. So when I passed, and decided to study film, I started to write a script about her. It sounds really funny now, but I thought the film was going to bring attention to her.
Eventually I realized the odds of me directing a big budget period piece straight out of grad school were slim to none. So I swapped to documentary figuring it would be easier (laughs) …10 years later, and here we are.
You’ve taken an exhaustive approach to getting archival footage of Kusama’s early career in America. What was that process like?
At the time that archival footage was not all gathered together in one place with a little bow around it so we could scoop it up. So it was a process to uncover it. One of the benefits of it taking so long is over time we uncovered more footage and left no stone unturned.
Why has she had to wait such a long time for that recognition as an artist?
Hopefully the film helps explain that to a degree. In the early years in Japan the art she was making was not in sync with the culture at the time. It was unusual and strange. Then she probably believed that when she got to America things would work out more easily, that she’d be more in sync with the culture. She’s left behind one set of problems for another set of problems (both a foreigner, and a woman). Society is working against her. Her ideas are obviously of interest to people as her male peers pick up on many of the same things.
What was the term you use in the film to represent she was double the outsider?
Twice the other. You see the ramifications of that. It is a problem that all these decades later is still in art… and in film.
She displays a remarkable degree of media savvy for the era, would she have fared better in the age of social media?
It’s hard to say. They way she photographs and presents herself with her work is very ahead of her time. The insight she has to documenting herself and her work is now very common, but in those days it wasn’t so common. So she could have used the tools we have today to gain attention, but weather that would have translated to the same money and opportunities as her male peers… that’s debatable.
Social media has certainly been a way Kusama’s art has gained prominence today.
It is certainly interesting that a lot of younger people that know her work through Instagram, many of them know absolutely nothing about her personal story. They’re simply responding to the art, and are shocked by how poor her career has been and the obstacles she’s had to overcome.
Is there one piece you have a personal fondness for?
I really like a lot of it, but the body of work l appreciate the most is the collages she did in the 70s. The reason I like them is first of all they’re very poetic pieces, but she made them at a time when she didn’t have any resources (Kusama had just checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and was exploring art therapy) …some magazines, scissors, paper and ink, she transformed them into this amazing artwork.