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ScreenTalk Archive: Heather Lenz on Kusama-Infinity

Infinity - Kusama
8 Oct 2021
27 min listen

Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is back for a second series. We’re delving into our vast archive to dig out the liveliest conversations from across the decades. First up, documentary filmmaker Heather Lenz discusses 'Kusama-Infinity' with Zing Tseng. 

Heather Lenz's documentary traces queen of polka dots Yayoi Kusama’s trajectory from a conservative upbringing in Japan to battling sexism and racism in 1960s NYC to her unstoppable rise to international fame.

Kusama - Infinity explores Kusama’s fierce determination to become a world-renowned artist. After making her way to New York City on the heels of WWII, without connections, and speaking only broken English, Kusama devoted herself to her one true love; making art.

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. Listen to more episodes on: barbican.org.uk/screentalksarchive 

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever you find your podcasts. 

‘She knows how to be the centre of attention and make people notice her. And she's someone that has certainly made the world a less a dull place, a more exciting place.‘

About Heather Lenz

Writer/Director/Producer Heather Lenz enjoys telling true stories of trailblazers, underdogs, and people who have not walked the beaten path. Her interests include art, design, sustainability, science, and sheroes. Kusama-Infinity premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Lenz was a 2018 Critics’ Choice Award nominee for best first-time director. In 2019, she was awarded The Women’s International Film and Television Showcase Foundation International Visionary Award in Documentary Film.

Transcript

Ellen E Jones: Welcome to the Barbican's ScreenTalks Archive podcast. Every episode we delve into the Barbican's vast archive and dig out the liveliest conversations from nearly 40 years of Q&As, so that they might live again in podcast form. This time we bring you a fascinating discussion about women in art, and one particular woman in art - the Japanese visionary and international polka dot, Yayoi Kusama. In 2001, documentary maker Heather Lenz began work on the film that would become Kusama Infinity and in 2018, shortly after an early screening at the Barbican, she sat down with journalist Zing Tseng to talk about it. They say you should never meet your heroes, but Lenz, a diehard Kusama fan from before it was cool, had a very different experience working with hers as we'll hear. She talks about the early stages of her project, how the idea transformed from a narrative biopic into a documentary film, and her intensive preparations for her first trip to Japan. It's all paid off, however, with a series of revealing interviews with a then 89 year old Kusama. Perhaps Kusama was so giving to this project, because once upon a time, an artist she had admired had reached out to her. You'll hear some background on the impact that American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, famed for her giant flower paintings, had on Kusama's early career. Not all of Kusama's interactions with fellow artists were so positive however, Lenz also has interesting insights into how Kusama was affected when her white male contemporaries, artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol, began receiving plaudits for techniques and ideas that she had pioneered. 
But first for the benefit of the five people in the world who haven't yet queued around the block for one of Kusama's blockbuster exhibitions, a little background on some of her modes of work. Kusama is very much associated with accumulation structures, a kind of soft sculpture she originated in the 1960s, featuring everyday objects covered with handsewn phallic bulges. Her famed infinity nets are large scale paintings made up of repeated single brushstrokes or dots. But if there's one Kusama work that you simply must experience in person, it's an infinity room. Mirrored enclosed installations which are discussed at length here. Mere words could not do Kusama's work justice, but we're about to try. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks with Heather Lenz director of Kusama Infinity.

[Applause]

Zing Tseng: So I wanted to find out a little bit more about how you were first introduced to Kusama's work. Do you remember when you first encountered it?

Heather Lenz: Yeah, absolutely. At the time, I was earning undergraduate degrees in fine arts and art history. And our art history textbooks were about two inches thick. And for maybe every 1000 male artists we learned about, we learned about maybe five women artists. Certainly not Kusama at that time. And so when I was introduced to her work, I just was really impressed by it and intrigued by it. And back then, for Kusama enthusiasts it's hard to believe, but there was one catalogue on her work. And after reading it, I just really felt that her contributions to the American art world hadn't been properly understood or appreciated or recognised. That was really the motivation for me wanting to make the film which I started later when I went back to school to get my MFA in filmmaking.

ZT: Do you remember the first Kusama work that you encountered in person?

HL: Well, it would have been one of the accumulation sculptures because my local museum had one. And as time went by, I was exposed to more and more pieces like some of the more common ones to be in museums or the Infinity Net pieces. And later in person, I would get to see some of the more obscure works like her collages from the 70s that I really love.

ZT: And what about the experience of meeting Kusama in person? So you presumably travelled to Japan to meet her?

HL: Yeah, I did. It's true. We started shooting the documentary in 2004. But even before that, I was working on a script because I wanted to make a biopic about her. Basically, I had someone that spoke Japanese call the studio to kind of announce that I was making the film thinking they were going to be as excited as I was. And they had some very pragmatic questions. They wanted to know which TV station it would be on or which movie theatre it would be in. And so what that told me was they understood the idea of a work for hire. But they didn't really understand the idea of a passion project and indie filmmaking. Time passed, and by 2004, I was working on the documentary, in part because Kusama was still alive and able to tell her story in her own words. And after applying for some grants, we finally got one. And it was for a dream project that involved travel to Japan. And so even before meeting her, I was introduced to a tutor. And I learned some conversational Japanese and different customs. For example, I learned how low I should bow when I met her. And that's based on status. And so when I got there, I was all ready and then I'm standing in her studio and the elevator door opened and out, she came and she extended her hand in the Western custom, shook my hand and start talking to me in English. But she didn't want to do the interviews in English, because she knew she could communicate more clearly in Japanese. And at the end of that day, it was just so exciting for me. I told her that it was the happiest day of my life. And she said mine too. I think that speaks to her generosity, because honestly, you know, clearly I was just one more person kind of passing through. And for me, it had been so many years in the making to get to that point.

ZT: So all the interview footage, was it shot on that single day you met her?

HL: No, I did an interview then. And I went back a few months later. And I stayed in Japan that time for about a month. And I interviewed her several times during that stay. And I also had the opportunity to spend time in her archives, which is like a documentary filmmaker's fantasy because she had just row after row of binders with all these photos, going back to the 1930s. And a lot of the people that photographed her in the 50s and 60s, I mean, and later, they were themselves accomplished, you know, in the art of photography, so beautiful images. And then I also got to go through her letters and her calendars and just all sorts of materials she had available there. Then in terms of the interview, sometimes she would travel so we had the opportunity to meet her in New York and interview her there. And when the Tate Modern show happened here, in the 2011 2012 time period, Kusama was here and we sent a crew. So the interview has happened over many years.

ZT: What were your impressions of how when you first met her, that one time she shook your hand?

HL: I mean, one thing about her, the way she dresses, it's just so compelling. And she knows how to be the centre of attention and make people notice her. And she's someone that has certainly made the world a less a dull place, a more exciting place. But she's also just an amazing businesswoman. One time, I brought her some photos that were from the 60s, and she hadn't seen them in decades. And she was very, very interested in them and calling out to her staff saying we need to reach this person. And maybe we can do an exhibition and things like that. And, of course, I have limited time to talk to her. So I was like wanting to get back to the questions that I wanted to talk to her about. And I was telling her, I can give you his number, it's no problem. So yeah, I guess I got to see different sides of her and the time that I spent with her.

ZT: What I find really fascinating about the documentary is that she has all these interactions with artists who went on to become much more famous in that time period, like Andy Warhol, for instance. And she kind of gets left by the wayside a little bit. Do you think she was aware that it was, you know, sexism and racism playing a part against her? Or do you think at the time she didn't really have much comprehension that that was what was working against her?

HL: That's a good question. I mean, that's really it's kind of hard to answer. Because, I mean, sometimes racism is very obvious, but sometimes it's very subtle. And the same with sexism. I mean, I feel like part of the way it manifests is that someone will offer a woman a job and offer them a wage that's just so much less than what they are deserving of with their accomplishments. And it's just, it's a very subtle thing that can be hard to put your finger on because also, you don't always have all the information. And there's also so many factors. And it's not just that these artists were inspired by her, if you want to put it nicely, or whatever. But it's also that different collectors or gallery owners or different. Other people decided to give these people more support and buy their work and help push them to fame, decades ahead of her. So it's really a complex kind of thing. 

ZT: And she's definitely slight seems to be, at that time period, aware of as well. You know, she comes to gallery openings, she's dressed in the kimono. It seems like she's very much aware of the way the world perceives her as a Japanese woman as well.

HL: Yeah, I do think that's true. And to me, in a way, that's the way she was able to be empowered by that attention that she received. I mean, she knew how to carry herself to get attention and things like that. But obviously then the attention wasn't necessarily on her work. It was on her and I think it was a very hard thing to navigate. And you see in the film in Japan, at the time, the expectation was that she would get married and have children and not just get married but have an arranged marriage. But in her heart, she had this dream and this passion and she wanted to be an artist. And when she goes to America, I feel like she leaves behind one set of problems only to be faced with a new set of problems in a new set of obstacles that she has to overcome.

ZT: What I do find really lovely about that jump to America, though, is how much Georgia O'Keeffe just played a role in it with the letter that is in the documentary, and it's just so giving and kind and positive. Do you think that letter from Georgia O'Keeffe had much of an impact on Kusama, in her decision to move to the US?

HL: I definitely think she would have been excited to receive a letter. But personally, I think she was going to go to America anyway. I mean, we couldn't cover every little detail in the film. But initially, she had thought of going to Paris. But the reason she didn't go there as at the time, she would have needed to learn French with America. She didn't have that. But I think she already knew that she was going to get out of here.

ZT: Was there anything else that you wanted to include in the film, but you ran out of time or didn't fit in?

HL: Well, certainly, there's a lot of interesting material that's not in the film. And there's a saying that filming is like shopping and editing is like cleaning your closet. And, and sometimes, you know, you might have beautiful things in your closet, but they no longer fit or they're not appropriate for the season, or whatever the case may be. And so certainly there were things that we had to cut out because, you know, we just had to keep the story moving. So those things were eliminated. And if I were just writing about Kusama, there's certainly things I would have included that in this case, I didn't.

ZT: What kind of things?

HL: I mean, there's actually several things, but I might have spent more time on the European years in the 60s, or we talked a little bit actually before this about the situation with Claes Oldenburg. And I mentioned that after he started making soft sculpture, she started taking tranquillisers, and I'm sure back then medications were much less sophisticated than they are now. Then when she stopped taking the tranquilisers, there was a suicide attempt. There's a lot of interesting details that just in the interest of streamlining the story, we eliminated them.

ZT: And I know I mentioned in my introduction, this was a very long period of development from beginning with the idea to actually seeing it on screen. Why does it take so long?

HL: Well, I think there's just a number of factors. For one thing, it was an expensive film to make. It involved international travel, we needed translators, we needed to have them on set during the interviews, then we needed to not only transcribe the interviews, but have them translated. I needed to look for editors that were bilingual, which there really aren't that many at the level I needed in my area and all of these things. So there were a number of factors. And also, when I started working on the film, Kusama wasn't the superstar that she is now, although her career was on the up and up, certainly.

But in seeking funding, it was necessary to try to convince people that the idea was worthy. And because she didn't have the kind of recognition she has now, it was harder to make that case. And in one case, I pitched it to someone that I thought would be really intrigued by the idea. And they questioned the fact that I wanted to make a film about a foreign female. And to me as a Caucasian American, I mean, I just had never really had to deal with that kind of like racist thinking. So it was very shocking to me. And at the time, I didn't even think of her really, as a woman or Asian, I just thought, Oh, this is someone that is clearly a brilliant artist who's led a fascinating life. So why wouldn't you want to make a film about someone like that? But as time went by, you know, I realised what I was up against. And even if Kusama had been a white man, one thing about the documentary world, most of the funding typically is available for social issue films about, I don't know, plastic in the ocean, or global warming, or whatever it is, you know, and there have been a lot of these films over the years.

And so I think the landscape is changing a bit in terms of when you see the films that are getting theatrical releases there a lot of films recently about compelling people. And this year at Sundance, I feel like it was really exciting to all of a sudden be seeing all these films about older women who had had major accomplishments because typically in cinema that is a demographic that's not included so much. And I do hope that this change with onscreen diversity will also start to happen more in fiction filmmaking as well.

ZT: And at what point during the filmmaking process did you suddenly realise loads of people interested in Kusama and all of a sudden people queuing up around the block to see her shows? 

HL: Yeah, I can't really say the year but certainly I was aware that there was this growing interest in Kusama and in a way that was great, but in a way that was also hard because initially, I thought the film was going to help shine a light on her and give her this attention that she deserved. But as she became more and more successful, and there were exhibitions all over the world, of course, I wanted to be filming these things. And that's expensive. And so, as she got more and more successful, people would say, oh, why don't you just find like a wealthy art collector and have them fund the film, but, you know, those people are not necessarily so easy to get to. And just because they're collecting art doesn't mean they want to fund a film, or that they're a philanthropist. You know, obviously, a lot of people collect art, it's sort of like playing the stock market, you know, it's a financial thing. And so, it's interesting, as she became more successful, there were sort of other issues I had to deal with that impacted funding or people's perceptions of why it should suddenly be so easy to get funding.

ZT: I was wondering what you thought of one of the things you notice about some exhibition is that there are loads of people taking pictures of themselves. And I was wondering what you make of that? Do you think it's a positive thing? In that it definitely helps put her name out there? Or do you think it's just people not really engaging with the art as they should?

HL: Well, I see it as positive. I mean, I do think it's, it just so happens that this thing has caught on with selfies, where people want to go to a visually stunning location that's hard to get to and take a photo and the Mirror Rooms are that I mean, I do wish people could spend more time in them sometimes. It's like 20 seconds you're inside or something! It's not really that long to get a sense of it, especially if you're busy trying to take a photo while you're in there. But I think it's actually pretty neat. And I'm really glad for Kusama that she lived to see this attention and finally see that people really are celebrating her work.

ZT: What was the sense of her reaction to actually finally getting this vindication while she's still alive? Do you think she feels happy about it? Or does she wish that you know it happened earlier? Or is that not even a thing for her to consider?

HL: I haven't discussed that part. I mean, I would think she wished it happened earlier. But I know she certainly appreciates it now. And that she's aware of people paying attention to her work. And I think one thing that's great about it is, of course, if you're successful financially, then you have the money to keep making new things and tackling bigger projects. And so she has that. It's not that you can't make creative projects when you don't have money, but they're going to be on a different scale. And there'll be different limitations.

ZT: Speaking personally, for yourself, how has kind of working on this project changed, or inspired your filmmaking or your art in any way?

HL: Well, in the beginning, the reason I wanted to make the film is that I felt that her contributions to the American art world hadn't been properly recognised. And I thought she was just a really talented, brilliant artist. But as time went by, and I faced my own struggles, getting funding and getting the film made, I started to feel more compelled by her tenacity, and all these obstacles she had to overcome and, and how long she had to stick with it in order to pursue her dream. And so that started to be something that I was even more impressed with, I think, you know. Then her art is just her strength as a person to figure out how to pursue her dream.

ZT: Yeah, I think there's something quite bittersweet in the film, when she says about her later on success. It's come at this last stage of her life, which is quite a bittersweet thing to say, really?

HL: It is. It is. It's tough. Obviously, I'm not... I've just finished this film. And I'm happy about that. I don't know anything about the level of success that she has, in terms of my own experience. But I do know, as a creative person with lots of ideas and things I'd like to make, it's disappointing to know how many years have passed already to make one project. And then, you know, I start to wonder how many more projects could I make, you know, and on what scale because of the funding limitations, but again... Obviously she's someone that has worked so hard to get to where she is, and so I'm delighted to see her getting that, that attention.

ZT: And it's very well deserved obviously.

HL: Yeah, of course.

ZT: I'd like to open up to the floor to questions if anyone has any questions? There's a man on the aisle up there?

Q1: The big question is, has she seen it? And if so, what does she think of it?

HL: She has seen it. We actually, even though the film premiered at Sundance it, we kept editing and it's just been released. So I have not discussed this last cut with her but I had discussed an earlier cut. And her only comment was put more new art in and you know, she's such a prolific artist. You know, I could be filming for you know, just on and on! I couldn't fit everything in - and like I was giving that analogy of editing is like cleaning your closet, you know, you have to start trimming things away to make the story work. So that was the feedback to just put more new art in but I guess fortunately, there's catalogues for that and other ways that can happen.

ZT: And new exhibitions. 

HL: Yeah.

Q2: I found it quite shocking earlier on in the film about the plagiarism, if that's the right to use by the male artists. And I was just wondering if Kusama herself had talked candidly about that with you? And if so, what she says and what her memories are of that kind of experience?

HL: Well, some of that's in the film. And you know, she talks about Andy Warhol, as she talks about the Oldenburg incident. And other researchers, art historians have written about that. I mean, I always want to give credit where credit is due. And some of that had been uncovered. I think what the film does is it breathes life into it in a really different way, because of the archival footage and photos. And so it's very different to see it in a film and get a sense of what people look like at the time that these things were happening versus just reading a paragraph in a book. And I'm definitely pleased with how the film turned out and I tried to just be straightforward about it, and like this happened on this date. And that happened on that date. And you know, at the end, people still draw their own conclusions, even when they're given this kind of data. But certainly women have been pleased with it, in particular.

ZT: I think there's that one really shocking picture where it's, Kusama's art in the corner of the gallery, the artworks of two men who proceeded to rip her off, like, are standing right next to it.

HL: Yeah, I'm glad that we were able to find the material that we found and present that, you know, I'm happy about that I just did recently a Q&A at a college and an art history professor was there and he said that it was going to impact the way that he covered that part of history in his classes. So I felt like that was, you know, was really exciting to hear.

Q3: I'm interested in the aspect of her being a female artist managing mental distress. And having to or choosing to, which I think is incredibly interesting, remain within a psychiatric facility. And I'm interested in whether that could have been further explored within your work, although obviously, I think you covered so much ground, but I just think it's such an inspiring aspect of her as a female artist.

HL: I just really wanted to focus on her accomplishments. And I mean, certainly, I didn't want to hide the fact that she lives in an institution, I also find it very interesting. I mean, it is a complex topic. And I would never want to understate any of her traumas or the things that she's been through, or the things that led her there. At the same time, you know, it is a facility that focuses on art therapy, and has been a place for her to be able to focus on her art. And so if you like, sort of take a step back, and you look at the history of people that have been just incredibly successful, or accomplished great things, a lot of them have been men who have had wives who have done the grocery shopping and made dinner and cleaned the toilet and done things that these people at the institution do for her so that she could leave and go make her art and, and she stays there at night. And then she goes to the office, and then she comes back. And, you know, it's really enabled her to accomplish things that as a single woman, I don't think she could have accomplished otherwise so easily. And so I think there's kind of like different ways to look at it. And it is a complex topic. And it's not that I wanted to overlook it or anything, I didn't. But I felt like we clearly state that she went there. And then she keeps working from that space. And to me, it's it's fascinating.

Q3: Thank you. 

Q4: Thank you for the film, how's her popularity in Japan? 
HL: Oh, I think it's doing great. She has a new museum and set up a foundation. So yeah, I think she's enjoying worldwide success. It's really extraordinary to see.

ZT: And she's... it's definitely been a complete turnaround from the way they treated her in the Japanese press that when she was younger.

HL: Definitely. And actually, I had a woman recently at a screening who said that she was from Japan, and she did remember Kusama being depicted in a very scandalous way. And some of that is just like there just wasn't a understanding of her intentions or motivations at the time, like for example, the work that she did in America, the work against the Vietnam War. I feel like that was really linked to her experiences during World War Two as a child, but when the press covered it in America in the 60s, they didn't explore her background or talk about where this interest came from, you know, it was just something depicted in a very salacious way. And that was something important to me to get into, it was her childhood experience. And for a younger generation who might not want to watch a more dry depiction of like historical events and war, I felt like the film maybe could help them see the trauma from this event. And by chance during the making the film I married into a Japanese family and my husband's own grandfather was killed when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. And so for me when I watched that archival footage, and I saw America sending its plane off with the bomb, it really affected me in a different way than it would have otherwise. So it was just something important to me to include.

ZT: Did Kusama's family ever embrace her again? I know that the film has mentioned that they went around buying up every single magazine that printed her name, right?

HL: Well, unfortunately, her parents both passed away before she would go on to achieve this great success. So they never got to see that. So I think that's unfortunate. But, you know, I don't think there was like, a full embrace. I think, you know, and I think for a lot of people who are ahead of their time and doing things, they're out of the box, it takes a while for people to catch up and be interested in what they're doing or understand it. 

ZT: Might have time for one more if you're quick about it.

Q5: Great film. Nice to see she wasn't compared to other female artists. For example, Frida Kahlo, they both suffered some sort of trauma. So was she compared to anyone at the time being a female artist of her own right?

HL: You know, I'm not sure at the time but I mean, I do, we actually in the lobby, we were talking about Frida Kahlo and how they you know, both Kusama and Frida Kahlo, they wore traditional or wear traditional clothing...

Q5: They're both unique in their own right, aren't they?

HL: Oh, yeah, they're very unique, but they're both obviously fascinating women and while I was here I was able to see the Frida Kahlo show, which was great fun. But I don't know I mean, at the time, I'm not aware of anyone writing about Kusama in the in the 60s if that's what you're asking about, but I mean, I could certainly see a connection.

ZT: I think on that note, we're going to have to wrap this up. Please join me in thanking Heather for joining us. 

HL: Thank you.

[Applause]

EEJ: Thank you for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with documentary director Heather Lenz. We hope it really hit the spot. Sorry, I couldn't resist that... To support film at the Barbican and make sure you don't miss an episode you can rate and subscribe to ScreenTalks via Apple podcasts, Acast or your usual podcast provider or visit barbican.org.uk. If you have a comment or a suggestion, you can find us at Barbican Centre in all the usual social media places. 

Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is presented by me Ellen E. Jones and produced by Jane long for Loftus Media. We'll be back next week with a discussion of the astonishing Syrian war documentary For Sama. Until then, be well and goodbye!
 

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