Heather Lenz’s Kusama: Infinity, an exposé on Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, mostly functions as a portrait of the ravages of misogyny. Namely, the ways in which sexism, heightened by racism, can push creativity to the most beguiling of places, but not without terrible psychological consequences for the artist. Stringing together snippets of conversations with the 89-year-old Kusama, a vast number of images of her artworks, and mostly disembodied voices of scholars and friends, the documentary never allows us to naïvely luxuriate in Kusama’s innumerable works. The artist’s playful aesthetics are inevitably sullied by the history of violence that has formed them. From the beginning, we know the hypnotic profusion of dots on canvases to be much more than something entirely whimsical. We know her hall of mirrors teeming with mirror balls to be a response to brutality and censorship. We know her chairs and rowboats covered in protrusions—whether bones, penises, or fossilized yams—to be nothing short of a scream.
As a work of art, Kusama: Infinity follows the same stale pattern of many a biographical documentary before it. This includes the incorporation of an incessant musical score, which contaminates the raw drama on screen with a manipulative sense of melodrama. Silence might have sufficed, as Kusama’s artworks are musical enough all by themselves. Her highs and lows, too, are already filled with more than enough action, emotion, plot twists, and eye candy—from scandalous nude happenings and homosexual marriage officiations to a demonstration at the Venice Biennale in a colorful leotard, from stints at psychiatric wards to botched suicide attempts.
Despite the exuberance of the works featured, which are promptly flattened by the film’s commitment to a traditional documentary blueprint, Kusama’s resilience still commands our attention. As Lenz implies, Kusama’s life is ultimately the extravagant rendition of a reality that goes much beyond the eccentricities of her art, her supposed lust for publicity, and her many exiles. Behind every specificity here we see a reminder of the truths governing everyday women who have something to say, and the multi-pronged assault that their saying it tends to trigger. Namely, in the case of Kusama, the shaming of her ambitions, the belittlement of her savvy, and the appropriation of her ideas by white male artists without crediting her.
Kusama’s last laugh, her vengeance, has emerged in her longevity, as she herself suggests, but also sartorially. The presentation of her aging self seems to efface the boundary between what one is and what one does. If her life has been marred by the anxiety of having her drawings yanked from her hands by her disapproving mother, as the film recounts, she has ultimately become the drawings themselves, defiantly donning her blood-red pop-art wig and polka-dotted fabrics as if they came straight out of one of her canvases.