20 April 2008

Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots

American experimental and documentary filmmaker Heather Lenz is currently in production with a documentary on the life and career of Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生). According to the official website for the film, the debut of the film will coincide with the retrospective planned by the Film Arts Foundation in celebration of Kusama's 80th birthday in 2009. The retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: An Odyssey will travel to at least four venues in the States and Europe, though the venues have not yet been announced.

Kusama’s art is shaped by her long struggle with mental illness. She herself claims that her famous polka dot motif comes from her hallucinations and dreams. Ever since I encountered the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland a decade ago, I have been fascinated by l’art brut (literally ‘rough art’, it usually means self-taught artists removed from mainstream art or mentally ill artists). Often l’art brut has a loneliness or deep melancholy about it, which can be very depressing. What makes Yayoi Kusama’s art so unique, is that her obsessions and experience with mental illness expresses itself in colourful art, that I actually find quite uplifting.

Kusama made a name for herself in1960s New York City. A friend to Andy Warhol, and other avant-garde artists of the times, she organized weird and wonderful mass events, known as ‘Kusama Happenings”, in places like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often in protest against the war in Vietnam. As an artist, she has dabbled in painting, sculpture, installations, performance art, fashion design, poetry, novels, and experimental films.

I am really excited at how this documentary about Kusama’s life and art will turn out. It looks as if it will take a feminist approach to Kusama’s struggles with mental illness and her career as an eccentric artist. The producers and project advisors are all women, and the promotional clip features a variety of women speaking about Kusama’s relationship with her art.

As a side note, when I went to the website of Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut in order to make the hyperlink for this article, I noticed that they are featuring a special exhibition on Japanese l’art brut until September 28th. What a coincidence! The exhibition features twelve self-taught artists including Shinichi Sawada, Satoshi Nishikawa, Mitsuteru Ishino, Hidenori Motooka, Masao Obata, Yuji Tsuji, Takashi Shuji, Takanori Herai, Toshimitsu Tomizuka, Eijiro Miyama, Tohshiaki Yoshikawa, and Moriya Kishaba. They have also produced a catalogue and a DVD for purchase at the museum.

A travelling exhibition, called Crossing Spirit, is currently touring Japan and will be at the Borderless Art Museum (NO-MA) in Omihachiman until May, followed by the Shiodome Museum in Tokyo until July.