Documentarian Heather Lenz talks about Kusama – Infinity

These days, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is heralded as one of the world’s greatest visualists. People will line up in droves – as they have for a recent box office smashing exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario – to catch a glimpse of her vivid, colourful, and often immersive works. But it was a long time getting to that point, and it should be argued that this type of fervent, doting recognition should have come decades ago.

Born into a seed growing family in rural Japan and to a mother who didn’t understand or appreciate her daughter’s art, Kusama, inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, moved to New York City in the 1950s where she would begin her artistic career. Captivated by the feeling of being an infinitesimally small speck in an overwhelming universe, Kusama’s now lauded masterworks, installations, writings, paintings, sculptures, and happenings were all tied to the “obliteration of self” and embracing the infinite.

But as many historians and culture critics – new and old – know, Kusama’s work was never embraced by the public at large until sometime around the 1990s, with the artist falling victim to a patriarchal and sexist art world power structure that be that provided more space, notoriety, and funding to her male counterparts, some of whom (most notably Andy Warhol) could be seen as copying her and not the other way around. Instead of being celebrated for her intricately detailed pieces and her tireless political activism (particularly during the Vietnam War), she was branded around the world as unstable and a perpetual seeker of publicity. The lack of recognition for her work and contributions to the art world drove Kusama to repeated breakdowns, and by the time she was finally starting to become one of the best known artists in the world (several decades too late), Yayoi, who’s still producing artwork, was dividing her creative time between her studio and living in a mental health institution.

Yayoi’s career trajectory is fascinating, infuriating, harrowing, and even a little bit hopeful, and it’s eloquently outlined by filmmaker Heather Lenz in her documentary Kusama – Infinity (which continues its run at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto this week, while expanding to other theatres and cities across Canada in the coming days and weeks). Lenz’s fascination with Kusma began during her studies in art school, and making a film about Yayoi became a passion project for the filmmaker that took nearly a decade to see to completion. Talking with Kusama, art world professionals, and some of those closest to her, Lenz delivers a captivating account of a life that deserves as much recognition as the art that has been produced during the course of it.

We caught up with Lenz over the phone to talk about the lengthy process of making the film, the shift in how Kusama is perceived in the art world, and how difficult it is to encapsulate her life and work into a single film.

You had studied Kusama before, and you knew quite a bit about her going in, but I was reading that this was a film that took approximately ten years to make from start to finish. What was it like working on this labour of love for so long and finally seeing it through to its completion? Clearly, no one works on something for that long if they don’t love what they’re working on.

Heather Lenz

Heather Lenz: Yes. Definitely, there was a lot of time, money, blood, sweat, tears, and that sort of thing put into this along the way. (laughs) It was a pretty massive investment, and it was one of those things where we kept thinking along the way that we were about to get our big break, but it kept eluding us.

If you were to take it from when I first started making a film about Kusama, it’s actually an even longer timeline than what you read. Originally, I had started writing a script about her, initially imagining this as a biopic. We switched over to making a documentary and began shooting that in and around 2004, mostly because back then she didn’t have the same kind of name recognition that she has now. It was always one of those things where you’re passionate about the work and life of this person that you think is fascinating, but they don’t have that kind of name recognition. That always made it harder at first to convince people of the importance of the project.

But also, the biggest problem with getting a documentary like this funded is that a lot of the funding for documentaries is set aside largely for social issue films. Not that there definitely aren’t social issues baked into this film and her life, but to get to those issues, you can’t sum it all up in a single sentence.

It was, frankly, an expensive film to make. There was international travel. There were different languages involved. I don’t speak Japanese, so there would always have to be a translator with me, and then we would have to have a translator on hand for the editor, although at the beginning and end of the editing process, we did have an editor who spoke Japanese, but we didn’t have them always. And then there were extensive amounts of artistic imagery that we had to get the rights to. Some of the photographers and filmmakers who had captured Kusama and her works over the years were very accomplished, themselves. It was an all around complicated project.

This was a project that took so long to complete that it was started, as you said, when no one was paying as much attention to Kusama’s work, and it was completed at a point where her works have experienced a sort of cultural and critical renaissance. When you were talking to people over the course of the film, did you notice people’s opinions of her changing as her notoriety started growing again? And do you think we’ve reached a point where people are more willing to engage with her art on a deeper level than write it off as work made by an Asian woman, as so many people tended to do when she started out?

Heather Lenz: Actually, the first people who were interviewed for the film were people who already knew Kusama and what she was capable of. For example, Beatrice Perry had been a big supporter of Kusama’s in the 1960s, and that was a time when no one had as much belief in her abilities as they do today. These people always saw something in Kusama’s work and in her that they thought was worth celebrating and sharing with the world way before other people did.

Even my own interest in her started based on a 1989-90 exhibition of her work at The Centre for International Contemporary Arts, which is included in the movie. Even back then, there was just the one catalogue of her work, and that never even really scratched the surface, but I knew there was something about her art that I wanted to stick with and follow.

Her art at the time was always for a select audience of people who were fortunate enough to find it. It was never anything close to mainstream. But with the film you can share things with people in a way that a broader audience can see; the kind of audience that might not want to go searching in obscure art books and that sort of thing. It was always my hope that the film would appeal beyond art enthusiasts. It’s easy to understand a film about someone pursuing their dreams and all the obstacles one has to overcome.

And I don’t really think her success today has to do with her being an Asian artist or a female artist. A lot of what has helped her is social media, and the fact that it’s a trend now to find these unusual, hard to get to places, and to take a picture to document that you were there. Of course, her Infinity Rooms definitely do that. They’re an intriguing place to go, and I honestly don’t think that photos do them any justice at all. But in any event, when people do get inside of them, they’re often inclined to share the images. I think that’s helped her almost as much as any kind of scholarly re-evaluation or change in attitudes.

There were some periods in her artistic career that I think people who see the film are going to be particularly taken by because they never knew they existed. I was particularly struck by the collage work she was making and that you show in the film that was produced during a dark period for her in the 1970s and 80s.You hardly ever see those in exhibitions today.

Heather Lenz: Those collages are actually my favourite of all of her art. I think they’re just really poetic and beautiful, and they’re obviously very different from the art she’s making now, but then again, if you look at the very early art she was producing before she went to America, that’s also beautiful and different. People evolve over time and keep pressing forward and trying different things, and Kusama is someone who was always changing her art. I do think it’s appealing that while she found success early on in New York with her paintings and Infinity works, she never kept making those for the rest of her career. She kept exploring new things, and that’s one of the things that makes her such an incredible artist.

The film also covers her role as an activist, particularly during the Vietnam War, and you have some footage of some of the happenings that she put on and participated in. What was it like covering that aspect of her life, and what was it like showing activism as a form of artistic expression?

Heather Lenz: That’s an interesting question that I never really thought of specifically, which is how to show the art in her activism. It’s really something to think about, though, and it was definitely a huge part of her life that had to be depicted in the film in some way.

There were a lot of happenings to pick from in terms of covering her activism, I can tell you that. (laughs) in a film that’s feature length, you really have to pick and choose what you’re going to show. You can’t really show a 12 or 24 hour long film. I just tried to pick the things that I thought were the most interesting and most relevant, like the gay marriage ceremony that she performed long before those sorts of things were happening. That was something I selected because when we first started making the film, many people in America still didn’t have those rights yet, and it was fascinating to me that not so long ago when we started, this was still something people were fighting for. It was still happening so many decades after she brought up that issue. Since there was so much to choose from, I think we stuck to the moments in her activism that either had the most impact or that were still highly relevant.

You’ve paid attention to her work for decades, and she has been working even longer that you’ve been studying her, so what’s the biggest challenge in selecting what art to showcase from one of the world’s most prolific artists? Was there anything you wanted to include from her body of work that you couldn’t find a way to incorporate it into the film?

Heather Lenz: There were MANY things I wanted to include that I couldn’t find the space for, and with her, it’s not just a challenge in terms of getting all the art in, but also just aspects of her life, or people she had interesting interactions with. There are a number of things I couldn’t fit in. I joked with one of the programmers at Sundance, where the film premiered, that we could have made the first 24 hour long documentary from the wealth of material that we had to work with. (laughs) But it is hard for me when I have to cut one of my favourite photos or cut a great interview, even looking back on it now. But I guess that’s just how it goes. (laughs)

Kusama – Infinity is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Mount Pleasant, in Vancouver at Vancity, and at Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. It opens at Cinecita in Victoria on Wednesday, May 23, at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, June 1, and at Winnipeg Cinematheque on Wednesday, June 13.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.