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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008


Yayoi Kusama: Inside an artist's head

Staff writer

It took director Takako Matsumoto about a year to really win the confidence of Yayoi Kusama, the subject of her documentary "Watashi Daisuki (I Adore Myself)." Only then did the avant-garde artist start addressing the filmmaker by her name — in the first 12 months it was all guarded looks at the camera and barbed observations that the "camera's too noisy for me to work."

Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama in "I Adore Myself" © 2008 B.B.B.inc. © YAYOI KUSAMA

Getting inside the head of an artist — to explore their motivations and thoughts — is always going to be a challenge. But with Kusama that challenge is even more difficult: not only is she unusually wary of prying questions, but she insists that her work springs, without thought, from visions and dreams. "The brush moves first, the thoughts come later," Kusama tells The Japan Times.

To her credit, Matsumoto has created a film that deftly skirts this issue. Rather than attempting to force Kusama's unwilling thoughts under the microscope, she elects instead simply to observe. The film tracks a period of 18 months from early 2006 during which Kusama set herself the task of making 50 new paintings (using black marker on canvas) over a three-year period.

Day after day the artist arrives at her studio, sits at her table and draws. Sure enough, there is no sign of thinking — no standing back and surveying the canvas even — just an uninterrupted stream of lopsided leaves, branches and flowers that flow untrammeled from her hand and pool in formation on the canvas.

To provide some idea of where Kusama's inspiration comes from, Matsumoto takes her to see the spring cherry blossoms. The artist is visibly touched as she stands beneath swaying flowers — a fact borne out by her writing and later reading out on film a poem she wrote about the experience.

"I want to eat cherry blossoms/I want to kiss their pink colors/Their scent that would have reached the universe dissipated in my youth," she says.

Matsumoto was lucky in that she caught on film some moments symbolic of the artist in what is a late stage of her career: A Dutch museum director visits her studio to discuss plans for a large-scale retrospective; Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs calls to inform her that she's won her country's pre-eminent cultural award, the Praemium Imperiale, for painting. (She responds to this with a nervous recitation on the phone of all the other awards she's won.) "I Adore Myself" doesn't attempt to answer questions about one of Japan's most recognized artists, but it paints as good a picture as one suspects is possible.

"Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Adore Myself" is showing at Rise X, Shibuya. It will screen at selected cinemas nationwide this month and is scheduled for a subtitled DVD release in fall; kusama-loveforever.com

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