Jud Yalkut & Yayoi Kusama
Running time: 24 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Polka Dots. What do you think of when someone says polka dots? Probably something fun, something celebratory like a polka dot dress or party hat, maybe a clown, and if a clown than possibly even a circus. You might even think of that famous 1960 bubblegum song "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" sung by Brian Hyland. Now if you were to combine all this with Pop Art, where would that take your mind? Suddenly the cheeriness of polka dots is showered over the fanciful and disposable imagery of the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The end result is something utterly celebratory and entirely empty at the same time. You would most definitely not think about such weighty topics as negation, infinity or even death. Still these are the themes that come sneaking in under the guise of cheery polka dots in the artwork of veteran Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama, including her 1967 experimental film "Kusama's Self-Obliteration", created in cooperation with Fluxus artist Joe Jones and artist/ photographer Don Snyder and directed (under the supervision of Kusama) by Jud Yalkut .
The now 82-year-old Yayoi Kusama is probably best known to audiences of contemporary Japanese film as the subject of Takako Matsumoto's 2008 documentary "Near Equal Yayoi Kusama: I Adore Myself". Kusama, born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture in 1929 started out studying traditional Japanese painting, but it was the rise of the global avant-garde that would capture her imagination. She transplanted herself from her life in Japan to life in the New York art world in 1957 and as the years progressed she found herself in the vibrant social experiment that became the 1960's hippie counterculture. Her artwork, which dealt with repetitive patterns of polka dots covering canvases, fake fruit and vegetables, sometimes entire rooms and often her own body, became the perfect counterpoint to young people who were exploring their own minds using hallucinogenic drugs. In the late 60's many of these young people would participate in Kusama's work by having the artist paint their naked bodies with her trademark polka dots.
All of Kusama's themes and visual motifs are brought together for "Self-Obliteration", which would go on to win the top prize at 1967's International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium. Kusama, so often front and center in her performance pieces and exhibitions, is present in nearly every frame of the film, paintbrush in hand dabbing polka dots on every surface put in front of her. These include tree trunks, horses, lily pads, human bodies, her own gowns, her trademark fruits and vegetables and even the surface of water and the genitals of her models. This latter decoration takes place when the film shifts to the kind of 60's happening that Kusama was famous for participating in. If it wasn't for the psychedelic super-imposed footage in the film we'd easily be able to see the artists and her cohorts engaging in a good, old-fashioned orgy for the camera.
What then is so profound about a small Japanese woman covering objects with polka dots and then writhing naked with a group of fellow artists and dancers? If this is pop art then it falls right into the niche of so much superficial and pretentious work that spring from the 1960's. It's Kusama herself who gives proper context to this seemingly nonsensical celebration of dots. Kusama has long suffered from bouts of depression and mental illness, and in fact has been living in a mental institution in Japan since the early 1970's on an out-patient basis. Her artwork, which now also includes writing and video pieces, often express Kusama's fascination with suicide and her own mortality. Seen through this lens more sinister threads can be gleaned from "Kusama's Self-Obliteration". The spots seem frivolous, but dots pile on top of dots until they literally threaten to obliterate the object they're painted on; and with the soundtrack featuring an ominous, barely audible intoned monologue the film doesn't create a happy polka dot atmosphere. Kusama leads a horse covered in polka dots through a field, but where is the artist leading it to? Kusama then wades into a pond, hip deep in water, but what are her intentions? Kusama is even seen covering cats and even a naked man in leaves, ostensibly burying them in the decaying undergrowth of a forest. Death and self negation are everywhere if you look. Eventually, though, this hinted at morbidity gives way to the polka dots representing some kind of atomic structure, a microscopic life that drives the climactic orgy seen at the end of the film with bodies writhing, covered in Kusama's paint.
Watching "Kusama's Self-Obliteration" may seem like a trial to many movie audiences, unaccustomed to the obsessive and obscure nature of experimental film. Still "Self-Obliteration" ends up being a fascinating time capsule from a time when society was bursting with creativity and revolution, and one woman from Japan came to define its ethos and aesthetics.