Movie Review: Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me (2008)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

One of my favorite things is wacky performance and installation art, especially by lady artists. I’ve always admired the polka dot-infused works of Yayoi Kusama, who made a splash in New York in the 60’s with her tremendous output of sculpture, installation, paintings, and performance pieces that brought a colorful playfulness while also commenting on Western perception of “exotic” Japanese female bodies. I was pretty excited to find Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, a documentary focusing on the artist, now in her 70’s, whose output is still considerable and whose clinical obsession with polka dots has remained strong. The film focuses primarily on her production of 50 large-scale black and white abstract drawings in 2006 and 2007, with side-trips for various awards and honors as well as a few interviews with peers. The artist feels her body aging but her mind remains sharp, and her self-confidence and incredible passion for her work is obvious.

With in-depth access to Kusama and her studio, I Love Me is a wonderful look at the artist’s working methods and general outlook on the art world at large. At times she reminisces about her past career, but primarily remains locked in the present, concerned with her own market value and how her art can move forward. She’s a bit surly at times, while drifting into poetry at others. She is intensely focused on art-making, with little mention of family or non-work friends, though of course that could just be the film’s framing. I loved watching her work, being privy to her intense, detail-oriented process, and it is made clear she would never want to do anything else, and indeed may be unable to. Her work- specifically the repetitive nature of polka dots- helps keep her balanced, therapeutically combating her own depression and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I think coming into this film with some knowledge of the artist had both negative and positive effects. I had certain expectations that weren’t met, so I was somewhat frustrated by the end. I really enjoyed the film overall, primarily because I love Kusama’s work so much and am always excited to see artists during their process. It’s also got some great time-lapse photography and lovely music. But I was really hoping for a more biographical approach, with more time devoted to her entrance into the New York art scene in the 60’s, as well as more examination of her history with mental illness and its connection to her artistic output. There are scant mentions of her hospitalizations (though it’s never said why) and interviews with two artists she lived with in the 60’s but it’s a minor section of the film. There’s an interesting recap of her childhood towards the end that is somewhat illuminating but I wanted more. There’s nothing wrong with focusing almost exclusively on an established artist’s current projects, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Luckily I’ve learned that there is another documentary about Kusama in the works that looks like it will cover more of her early stuff, so this one would be a nice follow-up.


Pair This Movie With: Well whenever that other doc comes out that will probably be good. Otherwiseeeeee um is there a movie about Yoko Ono? They were contemporaries.

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