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

The director of the Yayoi Kusama doc on why it took over ten years to make

Heather Lenz talks about the painstaking process of creating her portrait of the world’s top-selling living female artist

It might be easy to categorise any filmmaker’s work as a “passion project,” as the making of most films takes considerable time, dedication, and self-motivation. Kusama: Infinity traces the life and legacy of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, but its production began before Kusama’s fame reached its apex. The recently released documentary on the artist premiered in competition at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has since stunned audiences worldwide.

The film dexterously reveals the backstory of Kusama’s very painful and traumatic life – a stark contrast to what many might expect from an artist known for her – what appears at surface value – colourful and joyful works. Director Heather Lenz’s approach to telling Kusama’s story is straightforward and intellectually minded, but what goes under the radar is just how Lenz’s years-long dedication manifested this uniquely important documentary on an artist who, after seven decades of creating, only recently found her fame.

When Lenz began working on the idea for Kusama: Infinity, Yayoi Kusama was still a largely unknown figure in the art world. As an art history undergraduate student, Lenz remembers reading through large, multi-edition, multi-inch textbooks, only to find that that the legacies of women artists were largely glossed over. She recalls, “I learned about a thousand male artists, and only about five women artists, in that amount of reading.”

Kusama continued to be culturally swept under the rug, despite enthusiastic reviews from famed American minimalist Donald Judd in the 1960s, creating works that exhibited alongside Andy Warhol, and an invitation to the 1993 Venice Biennale as the first ever female artist to represent Japan. Lenz was motivated to tell Kusama’s story, as she says, “to help correct Kusama’s place in history”. And in 2001, before Kusama’s fame in the Instagram age, Lenz began working on a script.

“There was definitely resistance from various gatekeepers in Hollywood that could have provided funding a long time ago for the film – they just chose not to” – Heather Lenz

“I never anticipated that she would become the world’s top-selling, living female artist by the time the film was complete,” Lenz states simply. “I think I was ahead of the time with wanting to tell this story, because she just wasn’t the superstar she is now.” As such, Lenz faced difficulties getting the film funded in its early stages, and explains that “there was definitely resistance from various gatekeepers in Hollywood that could have provided funding a long time ago for the film – they just chose not to. But as time went by, and people realised my own level of knowledge, any resistance there went away”.

Lenz initially conceived of the film as a biopic, with actors playing the roles of Kusama, her family, and the artists she regularly mixed with during her time in New York City in the 1960s. As a new and unknown filmmaker, just out of her MFA programme in the University of Southern California film department, it was unlikely that she’d be approved to direct it, even though she envisioned the idea herself. Her turn to documentary was practical, but what came of it was important: Yayoi Kusama could tell her own story in her own words.

“At the time, I started making the film, there was hardly anything written about her. That gave me the opportunity to ask her questions that I really didn’t know the answer to and have her tell me the answers directly. That was really exciting.” Because the film was shot across a period of over a decade, it was able to produce a slow and thoughtful digest of Kusama’s life and work. The data collected was undoubtedly expansive – appropriate for an artist so concerned with life, repetition, and the infinite.

“Some people, unfortunately, think the film that was just sort of rapidly pieced together to go along with the exhibition. What they don’t understand is that it’s a very well-researched, painstakingly made film that took so long to make.”

Lenz spent many weeks with various artists, including Kusama herself, to get the visual material she needed for the film. Upon visiting the home of experimental filmmaker Jud Yakult, she was able to access “a room filled with shelves of 16mm and Super 8 film. There was footage there of Kusama that no one had seen in decades. My jaw was dropping. It was so exciting”.

This excitement and eagerness are matched with her intellectual ability and scholarly investment. In advance of travelling to Japan to meet with Kusama, she tells, “I learned conversational Japanese and learned different customs, like how low I should bow when I met her. So by the time I was there, I had already done substantial research.” It might be easy for some to dismiss Kusama’s work as a product of the Instagram era, but what remains obvious is that Kusama, in some ways predicted it. Her “Narcissus Garden” – which she originally installed in 1966 outside the 33rd Venice Biennale, without permission passers-bypassers by to essentially purchase their narcissism for a small price in the form of small silver globes which showed their reflection staring back. It was a small pre-emptive look into the future of the devices we purchase and carry in our pockets every day.

Just as Kusama predicted the interests of a coming generation, so too did Heather Lenz. A film many years in the making, Lenz was at the forefront of a new wave of interest in Kusama and proper representation of women.

Lenz articulates, “It’s pretty groundbreaking that all of a sudden this year at Sundance, there were a number of documentaries which highlighted older women. I hope that will pave the way for more changes in the fiction filmmaking world and the kinds of characters we see on screen.”

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