Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Japan Cuts: Near Equal Kusama Yayoi

Yayoi Kusama’s staff seems very pleasant and completely dedicated to their boss, the Japanese artist. Kusama herself however, comes across somewhat prickly in a new documentary screening during the Japan Cuts festival. Allowances can be made for real genius though, and to be fair, in her film Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Adore Myself (trailer here) much of the work director Takako Matsumoto documents Kusama in the process of creating is actually impressive.

Kusama does not always make it easy for Matsumoto though, sometimes bluntly telling her: “Your being here bothers me.” The Kusama recorded on film does not appear to lack for self-esteem. When speaking of a recent poem she composed, she tells Matsumoto: “There’s the work of a genius in everything I do.” However, late in Near Equal she does open up to Matsumoto about her insecurities and her chaotic childhood.

For many years, Kusama lived in a Chelsea apartment on 19th Street, not far from where the Rubin Museum now stands. She had many likeminded neighbors including artists Edward Clark and Tom Doyle, who pay tribute to her in Near Equal. In addition to obsessively painting the dots that would become her career motif, Kusama also organized Viet Nam protests that often involved public nudity, and are thought to have influenced Lennon and Ono. (It was too much to hope that Matsumoto might ask if she had any later misgivings about these demonstrations, given the mass murder in Viet Nam that followed the withdrawal she advocated.)

When informed by the Japanese cultural agency of another award she is to receive, Kusama chooses the description “avant-garde artist” over “abstract artist,” giving an indication of how she perceives her work. It is a reasonable descriptive starting point. Near Equal follows Kusama as she finishes a series of fifty large-scale ink-on-canvas drawings. Each appears to be large abstract geometric patterns, but on close inspection, frequently reveal representational figures and remarkable decorative detail.

Now a revered figure in the Japanese art world, Kusama displays a Warhol-like love for her celebrity status. She takes great interest in her clippings and periodically makes surreal appearances on Japanese television, including Beat Takeshi’s show. Yet unlike much of Ray Johnson’s work in the very entertaining How to Draw a Bunny, every piece of her work Matsumoto includes holds up on-screen as a work of legitimate artistic merit.

Kusama seems to be the kind of person who is called a character, because people do not want to admit they are difficult to deal with. Be that as it may or may not be, her work seems to back up her enormous artistic self-confidence. While Near Equal bogs down here and there, it remains clear why Matsumoto wanted to make the film about her. Kusama’s wiki page links to another documentary on the artist evidently in production, but Matsumoto not only finished hers first, she clearly had extensive access to her subject. She will be enduring Q&A following the screening on Saturday afternoon (so please ask real questions instead of making self-serving comments).