Film

Yayoi Kusama: The underdog story of a Japanese art maverick

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

When filmmaker Heather Lenz first came across Yayoi Kusama’s art in the early 1990s, she says that there was only one catalog of the artist’s work. Kusama is now the world’s top-selling living female artist.

Lenz, who studied art and art history, before gaining a masters degree in filmmaking at the University of Southern California, then set out to make a film about an esoteric artist, whom she considered “misunderstood and under-recognized” in the United States at the time.

Seventeen years after its conception, Lenz’s film, “Kusama: Infinity,” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of Kusama’s battles with racism, sexism and mental illness during her 70-plus years creating works of art.

Lenz recently spoke with The Japan Times prior to the Japan release of her film.

Evolution of ideas: Heather Lenz originally wanted her film about Yayoi Kusama to be a period drama, but settled on making it a documentary. | AMANDA MAJORS
Evolution of ideas: Heather Lenz originally wanted her film about Yayoi Kusama to be a period drama, but settled on making it a documentary. | AMANDA MAJORS

“Kusama: Infinity” was a long time in the making. Did it change in conception over the years?

I originally wanted to do a biopic, a period drama, but then it soon became apparent that the odds of me getting to do a big-budget movie as a new female director were, well … it wasn’t going to happen. I thought it would be more realistic to make a documentary. As a new filmmaker there were tremendous obstacles, though; there was the international travel, the foreign language, having to license expensive imagery, and also the world wasn’t ready for the movie — that’s the truth of the matter.

What was it about Kusama’s work that resonated with you to the extent that you decided to make a film about her? It seems as though when you discovered her catalog it was very precious to you.

It really was. I thought her art was exceptional. But more than that, it was her personal story. It’s an underdog story about someone who had great talent, but was denied various opportunities because of gender and race. For some reason I felt like I was the person to correct this.

Your grandmother was also an inspiration to you. Is that right?

My grandmother is 103 now. In her retirement she started making quilts. I got a grant to do a book on them and got it published by the American Quilt Study Group. This was a photo-documentary project and I got interested in documentary work through this. I was interested in making art myself, but as a young artist in my early- to mid-20s, I felt like I had already tapped out the life experience I could make art from, and I got interested in other people’s stories and the wisdom I could glean from their lives.

What connection did you make between quilt-making being overlooked as a creative practice and Kusama being an underdog?

I don’t know how it is now, but when I was studying art there was definitely a divide. We were taught to think that the “fine” arts — painting and sculpture — were superior to crafts. You can’t get a degree in quilt-making; that’s “women’s work,” so it’s undervalued. When I worked with my grandmother making quilts, I became aware of the obsessive labor; all the little stitching one has to do to make something bigger.

I think, in general, there is this tendency in some women’s art to employ this obsessive labor. You can see it in Kusama’s work, all these little loops — it’s not like abstract expressionism, where you have a big paintbrush and you stand there and — boom, you’re done. That’s much faster. If you look at the physical labor for Kusama to make those infinity nets — it’s just astonishing.

What artistic influences were there on your ideas about filmmaking?

While I was at art school, I majored in sculpture but watched a lot of documentary films. I got to see a lot of, let’s call them “artistic” or “avant-garde,” documentaries. Seeing “Bontoc Eulogy” (a 1995 semi-fictional film by Marlon Fuentes that critiques the Western colonialist gaze) left a big impression on me. It was very artful; it took poetic license to tell its story. There’s a saying in figure drawing that you have to tell a lie to tell the truth, that was very inspiring.

Was constructing a narrative arc something that you were interested in doing in the film, in the sense of providing the viewer with a satisfying closure?

I definitely wanted to make a satisfying, rather than an unsatisfying, film. But the narrative did change over the years, because Kusama’s life changed so much. I never wanted to focus on the latest greatest thing she did; I wanted the film to have a more timeless feel, so I zeroed in on how she was ahead of her time and not accepted in Japan, but then came back and and finally, eventually found acceptance in her hometown.

I think a lot of people, when they see the film, will wonder what Kusama is like to work with.

Well, we were always struggling financially, so our time together was very precious. Whenever we were here, the focus was always on trying to use the time as well as I could. As for her living in a psychiatric institution — I’m not a physician, so there’s a limit to what I can say about that. I think anybody who was treated the way she was sometimes, it would be logical that they would suffer from depression. She talks about hallucinations, but I can’t be in her head and look out from her eyes and see what she sees. Is she taking poetic license about what she’s seeing? I don’t know.

Which is worse —  the film world or the art world?

I haven’t lost my interest in art, but in my mid-20s, when I was exhibiting, I felt disconnected from my family, being in the art world. I felt that film and TV are more for everyone; young, old, rich, poor, black or white. But then my passion for art came through anyway, with me making a film about it. Art isn’t a team sport, though. With film there’s a lot of moving parts, and sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating. I feel like I spent about 2 percent of my time directing and 98 percent producing and trying to get the money. I hope the future is easier; I have more ideas for films than I could possibly make in my lifetime.

Is there some vicarious happiness for you with Kusama’s trajectory from underdog to great success?

For sure, I’m very happy for her, and that she lived to see this. All too often female artists only get the recognition they deserve at the end of their lives. I think when there are more obstacles in life, it takes you longer to get where you want to go.

“Kusama: Infinity” will be screened at White Cine Quinto in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward from Nov. 22. For more information, visit www.cinequinto.com/white/movie/detail.php?id=121.

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