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The Angler: The Mindboggling World of an Artist Ahead of Her Time

DOXA film chronicles Yayoi Kusama’s struggles and successes to become the foremost female artist in the world.

By Dorothy Woodend 11 May 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about culture and film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Do we make stuff, or does stuff make us?

If ever there was a week to ponder this question, it is this one. Vancouver is stuffed, overflowing with people crafting, building, drawing, designing, and displaying all manner of creation.

But it’s not always easy to make things.

Especially, if no one is paying attention, or worse, stealing your ideas, not giving you credit for anything that you’ve done, tearing you down, piece by bloody piece. What’s the damn point of all this effort and struggle?

If you’re looking for a reason to keep on keeping on, and really, who isn’t, I give you one Yayoi Kusama.

Kusama – Infinity is DOXA’s closing night film this year, and fittingly enough it captures the struggle not only of one woman to make art, but also the issues that have beset almost all women working in the arts. Poverty, sexism, exploitation, and the joy of having men take your ideas and present them as their own to universal acclaim.

Kusama’s life is an object lesson. The key word being object. Her drive to make things was all-consuming, and resulted in some of the most startling creations to ever spiral out madly in all directions. The cosmos itself was an leaping off point, the endless spangled expanse of the night sky found expression in her paintings and soft sculptures, that resembled coral, or even stranger extrusions like soft horns, or the eruption of skin diseases, pustules, carbuncles, pox run wild. Ordinary things — a couch, a rowboat, a woman’s shoe — are subsumed by this metastatic growth that draws the eye, with equal parts of compulsion and repulsion.

Organized as a relatively straightforward biopic, director Heather Lenz’s film trots out the major events of Kusama’s life like a series of dominoes, one thing tripping forward into another. In spite of this conventional treatment, some weirder undercurrents suggest themselves, most directly through the work itself. Although, the artist has become synonymous with polka dots, her oeuvre encompassed almost all of the major art movements of the past century — pop-art, installations, performance art, experimental film and feminist body practice. It reads like a creative laundry list. Often, she was so far ahead of everyone else that no one could figure out what the hell she was doing.

But long before she became the world’s most successful woman artist, Kusama was a weird little kid, growing up in rural Japan, with two miserable parents and a complete lack of support. Alexandra Munroe, senior curator for the Guggenheim Museum, and Francis Morris, director of the Tate Gallery, narrate the artist’s early life. Born in 1929, in Masumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the youngest of four children, Kusama’s affinity for drawing was actively discouraged by her mother. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. As the film’s gentle narration tells us, her mother would sneak up behind her, snatch her daughter’s drawings out of her hands and destroy them. At the time, female artists were as rare as hen’s teeth, but Kusama came across the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, and was so smitten by the older artist’s work that she wrote a letter to O’Keeffe begging for help. O’Keeffe not only answered, but offered support in the form of active encouragement and also a place to stay.

960px version of Kusama-Car.jpg
Artist Yayoi Kusama. Photo courtesy DOXA.

The remainder of the film stems out of this one barrelling act of self-creation. Kusama moved to New York, besieged gallery owners, collectors, and curators, all the while making art like someone possessed. Naked happenings, soft sculpture, mirrored rooms, installation work, even performing gay marriage — the film moves briskly through all of the artist’s major accomplishments, collecting memories, and circuitous incidents along the way. Emblematic of her furious need for attention was Kusama gate-crashing the Venice Biennale in 1966, selling mirrored glass balls from her Narcissus Garden for two dollars each, much to the horror of the Venice curators who insisted that she cease and desist. Even as she was breaking new ground, other artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol were only too happy to pinch her ideas and present them as their own.

As an outsider in all senses — female, foreign, and ferocious — Kusama regularly went careening over the line of being appropriate, badgering people into helping her, in particular an endless stream of young men, who rented her studio space, bought supplies and helped her lug paintings to and from galleries. Relationships with other artists were also a source of attention and support. Joseph Cornell pursued her with letters, drawings and entreaties that were positively deranged in their ardour. Things were dampened somewhat by Cornell’s mother, who dumped cold water over the smooching couple. The story is detailed in Kusama’s autobiography in lurid detail: "Joseph and I were sitting on the lawn one day, kissing, when his mother came up behind us with a bucket full of water. Huffing and puffing, she raised the bucket and emptied the contents on top of us.... 'How many times do I have to tell you, Joseph?' she shouted. 'You mustn't touch women! Women are filthy! They breed syphilis and gonorrhea.'"

Sex was another source of complexity for the artist, who presided over naked orgies, advocated for free love, and was a declared a national disgrace in Japan for her efforts. She even offered to have sex with Richard Nixon if he stopped the Vietnam War. But for all her bravado and balls, the woman was fragile. The film maintains that some early trauma created non-differentiation between the artist and her environment, and that art was the only means to contend with this experience, by recreating it, over and over again in net-like form, a self literally splintered into spatial infinity.

From the various interviews compiled from fellow artists like Carolee Schneemann, as well as famous curators and collectors, the fact that Kusama was probably hell on wheels to deal with becomes clear. Anyone who has spent much time in the company of artists will recognize this feeling, of being in the service of a certain strain of ambition/obsession that absorbs anyone in the immediate vicinity. It’s a curious thing, this channelling, easy to romanticize in the abstract, but in the flesh it is often monstrous, overwhelming, and exhausting. You get the sense that Kusama herself was barely in control of the forces that drove her, and eventually tipped her right out a window. A suicide attempt was unsuccessful, but it reaffirmed for the artist that death wasn’t the answer. The only way forward was to keep making stuff with near-relentless energy.

Eventually the world caught up, and with the help of a few rabid champions, the artist and her work underwent an extraordinary resurgence. A triumphant return to the Venice Biennale in 1993, where she dressed up like a wizard and presented her iconic pumpkins, was a vindication a grand scale. Sell-out shows in galleries around the world soon followed. (Her Infinity Mirrors exhibition attracted more than five million visits in one year alone.) But for all its triumphant arc, the film carries with it some curious and lingering questions.

I am still contending with some of the stranger, deeper, and far less explicable qualities of Kusama’s work, and, even larger ideas like what is this thing that drives artists, that takes them up and moves them puppets? What Dylan Thomas described as “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

It’s not a new question, and lord knows, I don’t have any answers, but you know when you see it, moving through the world, opening up new channels, bringing on a near universal reaction. Even old Steven Hawkins, before he departed for parts unknown, was pondering how the universe arranged for things to exist or in other words to make stuff happen

But before we go spinning off into space, you still have time to see a few more DOXA films this weekend. The Festival winds up on Sunday, May 13. I would urge everyone who can make it to Vancouver to go to see Alain Cavalier’s Portraits XL. Forgive me for banging on about these, but they are extraordinary films, and you will most likely never see them again on this continent. Cavalier’s portraits are so immediate, so intimate, and yet gentled by such a profound sense of kindness and openness that it’s occasionally unbearable. Each is a peek of people at work, whether they’re a famous journalist, an actor, or a frazzled baker, who stops long enough from gently bickering with his kooky wife and adorable kid to remember what drew him to his profession. He lays out a massive mound of dough, shaping it into great rounded hump, its shining, dimpled surface, as soft and supple as flesh. “Smell it,” he invites the filmmaker. “There should be a touch of acidity.” You may find yourself sniffing the air in the theatre, hoping that something will waft off the screen, and curl into your nose.

There is a strange form of magic at work here. I am hard-pressed to explain it, maybe because part of me, simply doesn’t want to. These films have changed me in strange indefinable ways, the people they document, the stuff they make, be it bread, flowers or a mattress, all of it ordinary and miraculous.

MORE stuff

Many of Cavalier’s films document people making things by hand, and if you would like to witness even more of this kind of activity, there are dollops of events across the city, as part of Vancouver Design Week. At the recent PechaKucha event in Vancouver a series of artists, designers, and architects talked about their own compulsions and body of work. I have to admit that occasionally, I find PechaKucha a little too self-congratulatory, and if I heard the word inspiration one more time, my head might have exploded like an over-ripe strawberry. But, the evening was a reminder that there is a great deal of good going on in Vancouver. One of the most fascinating presenters was landscape architect Joseph Fry who talked about Vancouver as a Hapa city, meaning it was blend of different things.

As he spoke about how to quietly and gently get things done, he cited examples of his company’s work, including the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Megabench in North Vancouver. You can visit many of these sites this week, as well as many others that are much more difficult to access including the Board of Parks Administration Office in Stanley Park. If you have a fetish for mid-century modernism (hubba hubba) get your tickets fast.

There are many different activities this coming weekend, including studio tours, parties, and pop-ups shops. A great many events are free. One of the most intriguing is Bubblescape, that runs Thursday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Robson Square.

As the PechaKucha presenters talked about their respective practices, from typography to peace work, all these busy little humans, beavering away, trying to do good, to make interesting cool stuff, fix things that are broken, and forge a path forward, reminded me again of Cavalier, and Kusama, each in their own way, working to make the world better, brighter, and more lovely.

Saving stuff

Sometimes, the stuff we make can actually save our skins. The VAG’s new Offsite installation kicked off on May 10 and runs until Oct. 8. It is particularly appropriate to Vancouver’s unstable ground with a program dedicated to the work of architect Shigeru Ban. Ban’s project was born out tragedy, a massive earthquake that that struck the city of Kobe, Japan in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people, and leaving another 20,000 without shelter. In a city like Vancouver, where a large earthquake is probably just a matter of time, this work has particular reverberation. The original structures, made from paper and cardboard, were devised to provide emergency housing for the victims of the Kobe quake, but different models have been replicated around the world. Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery's Institute of Asian Art and curated by the VAG’s Bruce Grenville, Shigeru Ban is currently being installed in the Offsite location, right beside the Shangri-La Hotel on West Georgia Street in Vancouver. If you traipse by, you can get a sneaky peek.

Crafted Vancouver also continues this week with a concupiscence of events, from film to workshops, all over the damn place.

Make a date to see Carol Sawyer at the New Media Gallery on May 26 at 3 p.m., where the fascinating Ms. Sawyer will be reacting, a word that makes always me smile, like art might reach out and take a chomp on your arm, to the Trace exhibition. Given that the entire show is pretty reactive already, it will be very interesting to see what pops up! Having just seen Sawyer’s work The Natalie Brettschneider Archive at the Republic Gallery in Vancouver, I am pretty darn curious to see what she will do, especially with a bunch of capricious robots named Paul.

So much good stuff is happening!  [Tyee]

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