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Yayoi Kusama, Kusama: Infinity
A still from Kusama: InfinityCourtesy of Dogwoof

What we learned about Yayoi Kusama from her new documentary

She was ripped off by Warhol, crashed the Venice Biennale without an invite, and allegedly performed the first same-sex marriage in the US, and more

There is a deep history behind the glistening reflective walls of Yayoi Kusama’s world-famous Infinity Rooms, her patterned sculptures, expansive paintings, and the iconic look of her coloured wigs and dotted dresses. Repetition, mirrors, and dots are at the centre of the artist’s aestheticism and have become instantly recognisable and often imitated. For Kusama, her obsession with these themes and their relationship to the infinite have historical and highly personal contexts. A new documentary released in the UK this week, Kusama: Infinity (read our interview with its director here) explores these frameworks and offers insight into her revolutionary, distinct, and ever-expanding creative world.

Simplified in style and form, complete with talking heads and archival footage, the film introduces us to Kusama’s complex and varied life in familiar cinematic terms. However impossible it is to grasp the idiosyncrasies of Kusama’s 50-plus year career in just over one hour’s worth of discussion, Kusama: Infinity excels in is exposing us to stories largely unheard. What we learn of Kusama is simply that she is a courageous figure, whose life of complex mental health and childhood trauma-informed her grand and salient art. The film begins with a large white canvas in its first few frames where Kusama begins a new work, opening up a clear and obvious metaphor for the audience. Here, as Kusama paints this blank canvas, the film allows her to draw her own history, supplemented with anecdotes from established curators and historians.

The documentary introduces us to Kusama’s formative years and explains how her histories have led to her now ubiquitous visual style. Here are some of the most important little-known facts about her.

HER REPETITION STEMS FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

Central to Kusama: Infinity is its focus on Kusama’s highs and lows, and how they deeply affected her life’s artistic output. The film is structured to demonstrate how, case by case, Kusama’s most famed works came to fruition. As a child of World War II and born in Japan, she was at the centre of wide-reaching national trauma. Further, she was at the hand of parents who weren’t supportive of her art, with a mother who would frequently rip Kusama’s drawings straight from her hands.

Kusama specifically recalls exploring the fields outside of her childhood home and seeing patterns in the overwhelming amount of flowers in the grass. She tells the camera that to avoid her trauma and anxiety, she “kept trying to make my own world”. From here, she began what many consider her lifelong obsession with repetition and infinity, beginning to paint natural objects in repeating form. In the late 1950s, she flew to America – and in the landscape of the Pacific Ocean, beneath the fuselage of the plane, she saw patterns again. The curators and gallery owners who contribute their thoughts to the documentary are eager to credit these experiences as the primary catalysts for Kusama’s infinity nets, the precursory works to her now-famed infinity rooms.

In mapping Kusama’s extensive and repetitive trauma, the film is able to reveal the context for Kusama’s grand works. On the surface, her art appears joyful, but what Kusama: Infinity reminds us, is that her work is rooted in something much deeper.

HER WORK NODS TO FREUDIAN PSYCHOANALYSIS

“Accumulation is the result of my obsession,” Kusama reveals. After moving to the US, she discovered Freudian psychoanalysis as a way of navigating her history of psychological trauma. We understand that her diagnosis is under obsessive-compulsive neurosis, indicating why she dealt with her trauma through repetition. Frequently overwhelmed by the trauma of her past and the daily hardship of creating a name for herself in New York City, she used her art as an escape. Her works of accumulation and the “spatial universe” created by large-scale paintings were designed so that she might discard concepts of personal identity which were difficult for her to navigate. Accumulation and repetition would lead to this goal of “obliteration” – a complete loss of the self.

SHE WAS FREQUENTLY PLAGIARISED BY WHITE MALE ARTISTS

When Kusama first came to America in 1958, she promised herself that she would “conquer New York City”. Motivated by an exchange of letters with painter Georgia O’Keefe, she was sure that the city would allow her to practice her art with freedom. Once she emigrated to the US, her creativity became truly boundless.

She continued to create her expansive and repetitive works in this new setting – even integrating the colours of the yellow taxis and the grey asphalt into some of her net paintings. Despite her unbound creative output, she found it difficult to secure her success in the big city. As a young Asian woman, twice the “other”, her work was glossed over by recognised art institutions. Her work throughout, however, did strike a chord with artists – including the likes of Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Joseph Cornell.

Both international art stars Oldenburg and Warhol shared a show with Kusama in 1963, and were introduced to her invested interest in repetition and “soft sculpture” – as seen in her featured work “Accumulation No. 1”, a stuffed fabric chair with hundreds of protruding phallic-like cloth sculptures. Oldenburg, in the years that followed, moved away from papier-mâché to soft sculpture, remarkably similar to Kusama’s Accumulation series.

Warhol too appropriated Kusama’s ideas – invested not in medium, but in her ideas on repetition. In 1963, Kusama began covering the walls of her shows which featured her soft sculptures with repeating images. Kusama recalls, “Andy Warhol came to the show and said, ‘Wow, fantastic, Yayoi! I like this so much.’” In the next few years, Warhol too covered the walls with repeating images, which culminated in his famed 1966 “Cow Wallpaper”.

SHE CRASHED THE VENICE BIENNALE IN 1966 TO SELL GUESTS THEIR OWN NARCISSISM

The 1966 Venice Biennale, the 18th edition of one of the world’s most prestigious art exhibitions, was crashed by a young Kusama. In the early morning, the artist set up 1,500 small mirrored globes on a lawn in front of the Italian Pavilion without invitation, and encouraged people to purchase her art for just $2 with the descriptor “your narcissism for sale”. Kusama describes selling this work, titled “Narcissus Garden” – currently installed at London’s Hayward Gallery – like selling “ice cream and hot dogs”. Disrupting the boundaries of high and low art, Kusama confronted the idea that art should be valuable monetarily above all. She made her art democratic and positioned it within reach of those who might not have been afforded the opportunity.

Kusama too made a name for herself as a performance artist, advocating for love and freedom in her work. Her “Happenings”, often nude performance art pieces, created a sense of infamy in her hometown. One of these pieces led to what Kusama suggests was the country’s first gay marriage.

Kusama: Infinity is screening Kusama – Infinity is in cinemas and on demand from 5 October. Yayoi Kusama: The Moving Moment When I Went to The Universe, at Victoria Miro, 3 October to 21 December. Free timed tickets victoria-miro.com