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Review: At the height of Yayoi Kusama hysteria in Toronto, documentary explains why her art matters

Directed by Heather Lenz, Kusama –Infinity explores contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama’s journey from a conservative upbringing in Japan to her brush with fame in America during the 1960s, and concludes with the international fame she finally achieved within the art world.

  • Title: Kusama – Infinity
  • Written by: Heather Lenz
  • Directed by: Heather Lenz
  • Classification: PG; 80 minutes

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Imagine if the unhappy Vincent van Gogh had finally, in late middle age, witnessed the acclaim that his work receives today. That’s the bittersweet story of Yayoi Kusama, the 89-year-old Japanese painter and sculptor whose social-media-friendly mirror rooms have made her the most-viewed female artist of all time.

It’s vindication for a unique artistic vision that, according to the documentary Kusama - Infinity by Heather Lenz, created soft sculptures before Claes Oldenburg, multiples as wallpaper before Andy Warhol and mirrored rooms before Lucas Samaras. All three male pop artists would have seen Kusama’s work on the hot New York gallery scene of the 1960s, during her frustrating years trying to break into the American avant-garde. She had fled a conservative and wealthy Japanese family that actively discouraged her art-making, but for all her attention-seeking activities in New York she found notoriety rather than enduring respect or sales. She returned dispirited to Japan in the 1970s, eventually taking up residence in a mental hospital, and it was more than a decade before Japanese curators finally took note of her ongoing work.

Step inside Infinity Mirrors, the wildly popular exhibit at the AGO. The Globe and Mail

The film can be considered an alternative and perhaps even an antidote to the Infinity Mirrors exhibition now showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. For those lucky enough to snag a ticket, the AGO event may be mainly an exercise in queuing to get inside the small mirrored cabins while the originality and import of Kusama’s entire oeuvre, also well-documented in the show, goes unnoticed. On the other hand, for those who can’t get in, this doc gives some sense of what it feels like to be inside one of the infinity rooms – but more importantly, it explains why Kusama’s art matters.

For those who can’t get in to the exhibition, this doc gives some sense of what it feels like to be inside one of the infinity rooms.

Lenz’s direction is sometimes awkward: With no narrator, she relies heavily on subtitled Japanese or the voices of barely seen curators to explain Kusama’s life and work. And the doc can be annoyingly vague about various aspects of the artist’s biography, such as the exact nature of a traumatic encounter in a field of flowers on her family’s farm in which she became one with the vegetation, launching her claustrophobic painting style of tiny, repeating patterns. Her relations with various men, including the much older American artist Joseph Cornell, are also mystifying. But Lenz does show lots and lots of Kusama’s work, places it in context and explains why it was important. At the height of Kusama hysteria in Toronto, the film will make highly informative viewing both for those who get it – and for those who don’t.

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