An Akron native, director Heather Lenz started making her documentary film, Kusama — Infinity
way back in January of 2001.
“It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” she jokes in a recent phone interview. The movie screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Wexner Center in Columbus, at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Akron Museum of Art. Lenz will appear at all the screenings to participate in question and answer sessions. “Initially, I had a script and realized the odds of me getting to direct a big budget bio pic weren’t great. That’s one of the reasons I switched to making a documentary. Also, it was because she was still alive, and I wanted to tell the story through her own words. I never thought it would be so hard and take so long. But that’s what happened.”
The movie commences with background about Kusama’s childhood. She wanted to be a painter since she was about 10 years old, but her mother didn’t encourage her artistic ambitions. And she grew up in rural Japan, and that posed its own set of problems.
“She knew that if she went along with what she was supposed to do, which was get married and have kids and have an arranged married — and I can see that not being terribly appealing — her own dreams would be over at that point,” says Lenz. “She knew she needed to get out of there. She zeroed in on New York and left behind one set of problems and was faced with a new set of problems. It wasn’t easy for women at that time. You see in the film that she comes up with innovative ideas and if white men do something similar, their careers take off. But she faced challenges in New York and had to overcome a lot.”
Because she was “twice the other,” as one of the interview subjects in the film puts it, Kusama initially struggled to find a gallery in New York that would show her work. But she persevered and eventually began experimenting with what would become one of her signature pieces, the Infinity Mirror Room.
“In the 1960s, she makes her first Infinity Mirror Room,” says Lenz. “It was the same time as space travel. We touch on it in the film that it was in the air at the time and something that people were thinking about. She picks up on that in her art. Earlier, she makes these infinity net paintings and says the inspiration came from looking out the airplane window on the way to America and seeing the waves in the ocean as far as you could see.”
Lenz’s film showed at Sundance earlier this year and will have additional showings at the Cleveland Museum of Art later this month. Check the CMA
website for a complete listing.
Lenz says she hopes the movie opens viewers’ eyes to the work of female artists.
“Part of the motivation for making the movie was that I had my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts and back then we had these thick textbooks,” she says. “I learned about over 1000 male artists for every five female artists. That was about the ratio. When I learned about Kusama, at the time, there was one book on her. The biggest takeaway from the film is her tenacity. You see this person who dared to dream big. We often focus on people who are successful, but we don’t always see everything they went through. Her tenacity is the most inspiring thing. I do love her art, but her tenacity is even more inspiring, and I hope people see that.”