Kusama – Infinity

Documentary film, Kusama – Infinity about the artist Yayoi Kusama directed by Heather Lenz. The “top-selling, living, female artist.”

Kusama – Infinity is a fascinating film about the life and work of contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama born in 1929. Directed by Heather Lenz, it follows the traditional format of such documentaries with a host of famous ‘talking heads’ such as gallery directors from the Tate, colleagues including Carolee Schneemann, and Kusama herself. It charts her origins and upbringing in Matsumoto, Japan and primarily her dedication and determination which went mostly unnoticed before her consequent move to the US.

The development of her work is examined and contextualised: connections are sought between real life events and landscape, her internal psychology (she underwent Freudian analysis when she was younger and is currently living in a psychiatric hospital); and the thematic strands of her work. Beginning with the ‘net’ pieces inspired by seeing the pattern of fishing nets spread out on the surface of the Pacific Ocean from the aeroplane, the movie goes on to describe and show her love of dots and discs, chairs covered with white protruberances, the famous kaleidoscopic ‘infinity mirrors’ rooms, and ends with the current complicated collages and larger-than-life sculptures reminiscent of Joan Miro.

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She was at the forefront of artistic / political activism having lived through the Vietnam War (“I thought it was wrong, why send this beautiful [human] body to war”); the more conservative Nixon era when there was very little support for contemporary art, never mind female artists on the cutting edge; the space age (seeing the world as a series of very small spots from high up); the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“I made my art to try and change people’s minds”), and free love (she presided over the first homosexual weddings). To all of these she took a stance, responding with art, poignant and plaintive poetry, and costume.

There is a great deal of often compelling historical footage, particularly of her wonderful ‘happenings’. In ‘Narcissus Garden’ she hawked mirror balls for 2$ outside the Italian Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in protest. When the police tried to move her on, she stripped off her kimono revealing a red bodysuit and posed among the balls – never one to miss out on a photo opportunity.

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Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC was an especially delightful episode. “What’s modern here, I don’t see it” she said!

We are shown the letters between Kusama and Georgia O’Keefe from whom she asks advice early on; we see her in a non-sexual relationship with the famous artist Joseph Cornell (27 years her senior) who called her his princess; and hear how Frank Stella was the first to buy her artwork for $75 (it subsequently sold for and enormous $750,000). 


Like Louise Bourgeois who used her insomnia as inspiration, the two women also share the use of eyes, stitched work, and blood-red imagery, albeit this latter speaks of classic female subject matter. A contemporary of Niki de Saint Phalle, she has also worked on a monumental scale with bright blocks of colours and complex design including dots and eyes. In turn, she has clearly influenced contemporary female artists such as Anna Ray and Joana Vasconcelos. There are also tastes of indigenous Australian art and traditional Mexican patterns to be found. Pat Oldenburgh is quoted as saying that Claes (her husband) got the idea of soft sewing from her, and this and other blatant plagiarism caused Kusama to fall into depression.

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She constantly struggles with her mental health and the film addresses the possible origins of this – some “trauma in a field of flowers”; being sent by her mother to spy on her father’s sexual liaisons; being forced to sew parachutes in a military factory; and having her art torn from under her, all as a very young girl. There are lots of stills showing her with manic and tortured expressions, shots covering her multiple suicide attempts, and in her own words: “I covered myself in polka dots until I disappeared”.

There is not much to criticise in the film: she is described as touting her work “aggressively” in New York, such terms being used repeatedly about her intense resolution to get her work seen. It was sometimes difficult to know who was speaking at any one time, but it is questionable whether the language used to convey her behaviour would have been used for a male artist.


Kusama on the left, Michaelle Possum Nungurrayi, ‘Womens Ceremony’, an example of indigenous Australian art on the right.

Nowadays she is feted, and the feature opens and closes with her sporting a magenta bob and matching spotted dress, painstakingly painting massive and complex, undrafted art work (up to 33’ / over 10 metres) in primary colours full of symbols and, of course, dots.

Further reading:

Current exhibition: Kusama at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Entangled Threads exhibition review



McGonagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

Play at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 5 – 15 December 2018. Written and performed by Gary McNair with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and Brian James O’Sullivan (musician / Chorus. Directed by Joe Douglas and co-directed by Tomaz Krajnc. 

Writer and performer Gary McNair couldn’t believe his ears when his friend introduced him to the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. He found the work ‘so terribly bad’ that he was drawn to examine why McGonagall is well known 125 years later. ‘Who was this guy?’, he asked, ‘Was he meant to be this bad?’ This way the show McGonagall’s Chronicles was born.

McNair has taken a poet who is pilloried and vilified and written a script using the same declamatory, clunky and ‘abominable’ style but in a more adroit and knowingly comical way. With awards tucked into his belt (Fringe First 2018), and together with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and principal on-stage side-kick Brian James O’Sullivan, musician and Chorus, he has created a one hour touring show which tells the story of McGonagall’s life in often ridiculous rhyming verse. We learn about the very tough trajectory of this self-made man who had endless determination and apparently unwavering self-belief. Somehow McNair manages to elicit sympathy for this most hard-skinned of men.

Using a form which would be recognised in the 19th century theatre of McGonagal”s day, there is a tight structure. He remains true to the metre and doggerell of McGonagall, and performs in a flamboyant style which is thirds panto, music hall and stand-up. The text contains references to the nursery rhymes of the times: ‘bonnie and gay’, ‘nimble and quick’, but there are also contemporary metaphors, ‘He was bound to be as popular as Game of Thrones’. It is not pure drama – there are songs and letters, a judge’s sentence and newspaper cuttings amongst the dialogue.  

It is tight and prodigiously paced at the start – the two performers slickly alternating and interrupting each other. However, around the time that the timbre is turned up to a shout, things start to go wrong. It is an unfortunate irony that in the pre-show announcement O’Sullivan declares, ‘You might want to take this chance to head for the exit’, because when a gentleman does just that, McNair loses his place. He responds in style and heckles, initially incorporating it smoothly so that those of us who didn’t know it was happening are surprised. It puts him off his stride. With many a ‘f… it’, he struggles manfully to retrieve his place, but the show barely recovers and when, five minutes to the end, his costume proves to be more of a straight-jacket than a smock, he must have wanted to just sit down and cry. Even the script seemed considerably weaker at the end and the final line of the ‘Life After Dundee’ section was a flop.

It is unlikely that this is normal, after all McNair has a great reputation and over half the show was excellent. McGonagall’s Chronicles will surely continue to entertain those who enjoy a good play on words in a historical context.

Further Reading

19th century theatre

Mary Brennan’s review of the same show in the Glasgow herald. 5 stars.

The Long Path to Wisdom

Collection of Burmese Folk Tales by Jan-Philipp Sendker

In The Long Path to Wisdom (published by Birlinn) Than Htlun, a book dealer in Yangon, says, ‘Every country changes…What matters is deeper than that. And the soul of a people, as it is described in folk tales, does not change so quickly.’ Quoting this in the epilogue, Jan-Philipp Sendker is explaining why he is sharing ancient fables in an age when even Burma has succumbed to the short-span concentration of the mobile phone.

Initially told around the fireside by the Burmese grandmother or shared by monks, these fables range from pithy cautionary ones, namely The Crocodile and The Monkey where the canny latter outwits the obliging former and escapes with his heart intact; to the longer and more involved, like The Best Storyteller, a devious story containing 5 mini fables and a humorous outcome where the greedy are trounced by an innocent stranger. There are yarns featuring cruel nuns (The Grateful Serpent); a chamberlain who gets his come-uppance (The Fisherman’s Reward); and the Burmese equivalents of Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel in the sad and piteous The Starving Orphans or the brutal Nan Ying and Her Little Brother.

Sendker is the author of the best-selling novels The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (2012) and  A Well-Tempered Heart (the sequel published in 2014) which are also set in Burma. He has travelled extensively, visiting both city and village, and together with Lorie Karnath and Jonathan Sendker has brought these 53 funny, informative and easy-to-read stories together in one volume. In the introduction, the passages about the taxi driver briefly taking his hands off the wheel while passing the Shwedagon Pagoda to pay homage, and the image of Yangon alight with candles in a power cut, are beautifully written and translated. Here and in the stories which follow, the scenes are vividly depicted, and the reader is enticed to visit such a rich and fascinating sounding country.

Smoothly and effectively translated from the German by Lisa Liesener and Kevin Wiliarty, there is a mix of the traditional fairytale narrative alongside a modern vernacular. In The Pious Queen for example, we read that ‘her mind turned to wicked thoughts’, or in A Mother’s Warning, that ‘they worked hard with nary a rest’; whereas in The Night the Moon Fell into the Well the ‘simple farmer’ is described as ‘not … being the sharpest tool in the shed’. Text such as ’embroiled in a boisterous debate’ from A Battle Between Two Sculptors is a pleasure, and sometimes I even had the sense that I was being read to as I was reading to myself.

Although there is a familiar essence of spoken folk tradition from all around the world, the stories have an authentic air of Burma – full of Buddhism (On Gratitude), karma and elephants! Its landscape and geography are evocative to the Western ear – poor merchants sit under Banyan trees taunted by monkeys, villages are located in Mandalay (famous from the controversial Kipling poem), and treks to find new lands are made along the Irrawaddy River (The Magic Comb). 

Burmese naga
Burmese naga

All manner of sorcery and the supernatural abound: Magic eggs in The White Crow and Love); nagas, snake spirits (clearly the origin of Rowling’s snake nagini); and nats, tree spirits which The Blacksmith’s Children turn into. Talking animals are the norm (On Gratitude), and astrologers (On the Rationality of Astrology) and fortune tellers are consulted by monks, kings and villagers alike to help with the establishment of right and wrong (How the Hare Became a Judge).

Then there are also the princesses, ogres and dragons that we know from the Scottish and English traditions (see Rashiecoats or St George and the Dragon which was in fact initially from Cappadocia (now Turkey) and came to the UK with the Crusades). In Nan Ying and Her Little Brother, the little girl was frozen with terror on seeing a noble dragon rise out of the water but luckily he turns out to be a good listener and is able to make everything right in the end. There is plenty of the Hans Christian Andersen type of cruelty we are used to (The Omen, The Grateful Serpent, and Mu Yeh Peh and the Wages of Love), and much transformation of human to beast and vice versa as in the Irish fable, The Children of Li.  

Curses are cast (The Flood), conundrums are solved (Three Women and One Man), and in the succinct How to Spell Buffalo there is no conclusion. Reminding me of a Japanese Zen koan, a monk is sent by the King to test the people’s devotion, and is pitted against the encumbent abbot. Lacking humility, he is taught a lesson when he finds himself completely stumped by being asked the title question, and we, too, are left pondering.

banyan tree
Banyan Tree

Like the Greek myths, some are concerned with the origin of animals or birds (The White Crow and Love), or how their appearance came to be, such as How the Thrush Lost Her Colourful Plumage. In others there are young men going on quests – The Long Journey is reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey. Moral and ethical parables of kindness, revenge, jealousy and greed are to be found in The Long Path to Wisdom.

On these long winter evernings, why not cosy down with a loved one and bring back reading aloud? These often laugh-out-loud, always fascinating stories from a far-away land are sure to delight both children and adults.

Further reading:

The gruesome origins of fairy tales

Examples of Japanese Zen koans