To say her provincial Japanese bourgeois family opposed her art ambitions at the start of her life is an understatement. Added onto that was her childhood trauma, centred around her parents’ unhappy marriage where, as a young girl, her mother employed her to spy and witness her father’s infidelities. Nevertheless, she studied art and began to find her voice. While still in Japan, she even reached out to Georgia O’Keeffe by mail, and received advice and encouragement that led to her move to New York in 1957. Being a woman and Japanese were her next obstacles. She attained a measure of success in her 15 years in New York, but regularly saw men copy her ideas and innovations, then get the credit and recognition. This pushed her to depression and even a suicide attempt, but she had people who supported her to keep going. Eventually, she returned to Japan and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital - where they encouraged art therapy, allowing her to continue what is most important for her. She continues to live there until today, with her studio two blocks away. In the 1980s, a few gallery owners in the US and Japan began to notice her. In the 1990s, international fame arrived. By the 2010s, her exhibits were the most visited of any living artist. Now in her 90s, she continues to work every day.
The themes of her work have been consistent since the 1950s but ever more refined. She was first noticed for her hypnotic net paintings - obsessive and at times huge paintings that resemble the pattern of fishing nets. Repetition, especially of dots and phalluses - sometimes dots on phalluses, has been a mainstay of her practice since her early days.
In 1965, she created her first mirror room. The concept has continued to this day, with her Infinity Mirror Rooms drawing massive audience around the world. Another audience draw is her Obliteration Rooms. They are rooms where every corner and every object is white. Audience members are given a page of coloured dot stickers to put wherever they want - and they happily oblige.
The life drama of Kusama is the backbone of this documentary, and it is heartbreaking. It should not have to be this hard to have your talent recognized. Fortunately, she was not crushed by so many difficulties.
The movie’s weakness is the absence of creating a connection between her early works and the current famous ones - Infinity Mirror and Obliteration Rooms. There is little about where the idea for Obliteration Rooms came from and how it evolved. Given how central it is to her current fame and audience interest, a stronger explanation of the evolution of her work in the last decades is a disappointing gap.
The documentary ends on a note of relief as the fame she longed for has come to her. Kusama’s is a good news story and while not exactly a happy ending, seeing her continue to work with such determination into her 90s leaves viewers with a sense that her life has come to a good place now.