Directed by: Heather Lenz
Director of Photography: Hart Perry
Composed by: Allyson Newman
Produced by: Heather Lenz, Karen Johnson, David Koh, Dan Braun
Starring: Yayoi Kusama.
From international scandal when she notoriously crashed the Venice Biennale in 1966 to Japan’s first female representative of in 2003, Yayoi Kusama is possibly the highest selling female artist on the planet today, and the queues for her exhibitions can be so long they can only be described as preposterous.
But, any exhibition is just a tiny window onto a body of work that, in this case, spans around 80 years. So, an opportunity to observe the genesis of the ideas and view a curated selection of the artist’s entire oeuvre, to see the various strands through the eyes of the artist can elicit that special thrill of recognition when you know that you get it, too.
In 1957, Kusama arrived in New York during the heyday of Minimalism with almost nothing but her talent and her boundless ambition. When she left Tokyo, flying first to Seattle, Kusama was mesmerised by the endless crests and swells of the sea below. Later, standing on the point of the Pacific Ocean, she felt as if she was poised on the edge of infinity. In a departure from her signature dot motif, Kusama produced a series of large canvasses, richly patterned with thick, impasto arabesques brushed over a thin stain. Superficially at one with the spare, self-referential style of Minimalism, Kusama’s Infinity Nets were inspired by the diametric opposite.
Instead of reduction, Kusama’s Nets represent a highly tactile and exuberant accumulation: ‘I am obsessed with Nets, they fascinate and haunt me.’ Rather than an art that speaks only to itself, Kusama’s work began with her deepest private experience, moving out to embrace the world and the infinity beyond: ‘I convert the energy of life into the dots of the universe.’
In her response to Minimalism, Kusama found herself among a cohort of white males, the rising stars of Pop Art, but the career trajectory was very different for the young Japanese émigré. In lieu of sales and grants, she worked tirelessly to secure patronage and, while she often achieved her goal, her desperation translated as aggression, further distancing her from the rarefied circles she hoped to move among. Since her goal was no less than, ‘To create a new history of art for the USA’, Kusama increasingly sought ever more radical and subversive avenues to bring attention to her practice.
Even so, Kusama was showing more in Europe than in America by 1966 when artist Lucio Fontana invited her to exhibit in front of the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She assembled an installation composed of 1500 reflective silver spheres with a sign in the middle that read, ‘Your Narcissism for Sale’. When asked to desist—despite the invite, Kusama was exhibiting without official permission—she had the perfect Pop Art comeback: ‘Why cannot I sell my art like ice-creams and hotdogs?’
By turns luminous and illuminating, this is the story of an artist who refused to accept oblivion. In response to decades of stonewalling by the art establishment, Kusama has sought ever more varied avenues to express her vision, from painting and sculpture to pioneering installation, naked happenings, performance and film. Very much aware of ‘the publicity that got a lot of attention’, Kusama has frequently waged her art as a guerrilla campaign. But at its heart are Kusama’s dots, ‘because stars don’t’ exist by themselves’.
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