Kusama: Infinity: No Reflection, by David Bax
Composer Allyson Newman’s yearning score for Kusama: Infinity, a new documentary by Heather Lenz, suggests the better movie that might have been, a movie that relates the human experience of the many victories and defeats of its subject’s varied career. Instead, what we get is a primer, dry and hagiographic, on Yayoi Kusama. You’ll come away from it having learned something but probably not having been moved by it.
Kusama is a Japanese multi-media artist. In Kusama: Infinity, Lenz tracks her difficult childhood, her move to America, her frustrations as sexism and racism kept her from the upper tiers of the art community, her return to Japan, her ongoing hospitalization and her eventual emergence as the top-selling female artist in the world.
Kusama’s story is not just one of a great talent nearly snuffed out by discrimination. It’s also an illustration of the unwavering fortitude that is unfortunately necessary to overcome such codified prejudices. Her confidence in herself is gobsmacking and her drive borders on obsessive. When she says, “My goal was to create a new history of art in the USA,” she’s neither exaggerating nor bragging; that’s who she is. Unfortunately, Kusama’s penchant for self-advertising—showing up uninvited at the Venice Biennale and laying out her own installation on the lawn—has been coopted by Lenz, who gives viewers the hard sell on Kusama’s genius. All of Lenz’s bluster, though, only makes the art seem less special than it should. It’s almost as if Lenz is patronizing her subject.
If you were to watch Infinity on mute, though, you’d probably have no problem seeing what the noise is all about. Kusama’s artworks, from paintings to sculptures to interactive installations, are engrossing. Sometimes they are psychedelically hypnotic, like the meticulously drawn and brightly colored dots and stripes of her paintings. At other times, they are fiercely sardonic, like the sofa made of thick, hard sprouts of plaster which one expert dubs the “penis chair.”
As is the case with far too many biographical documentaries, though, Infinity only makes you wish you’d chosen to spend 90 minutes experiencing Kusama’s work instead of watching a movie about it. The only goal for a movie like this one is make you conversant enough on the subject to feign expertise. That’s why Lenz spends so much time dumping information on you. Yet she seems unable to arrange the information in a way that creates its own emotional narrative arc, the way a more accomplished (if not necessarily more insightful) documentarian in this mold, like Alex Gibney, would. Instead, everything is simplified and literalized. When we’re told, in the section about Kusama’s hometown rejecting her, that “her name was even removed from the alumni list of her high school,” the soundbite is accompanied by a shot of the exterior of the high school. That sort of A-to-A connecting of the dots makes Infinity feel like it would be more at home among weekend midday edutainment specials on PBS than in cinemas.
When Kusama, now in her late eighties, says, “My life is in the late phase,” there’s more honesty and intrigue in that one moment than in most of the rest of the film. Lenz is resolutely uninterested in the still-working Kusama of today, it seems. She would rather revel, in a juvenile way, in her subject’s 1960s and 1970s hippy bullshit, such as using nudity as a form of protest. It’s a sadly all too common form of hero worship that actually diminishes its subject, trapping them in a time that never was, a period of glory that only exists in the idolater’s head. At least I learned who Yayoi Kusama is, though; I look forward to experiencing her art for myself.