FILM ANALYSIS: YAYOI KUSAMA'S 'SELF OBLITERATION'

Coming back to LA after a nearly two year hiatus, I'm strangely feeling more at-home with all the entertainment billboards. In San Francisco most ads are tech related, or bills selling alcohol and fancy destination hotels. But in LA almost everything is about film and television (save for the occasional laser hair removal or cosmetic dentistry advert). 

Being surrounded by the effects of Hollywood, I've been thinking about the history of filmmaking. Considering the massive crews it takes to make a blockbuster, and juxtaposing that with prosumer access to filmmaking technology, I've been trying to imagine a time when editing required the actual cutting of film. When access to, and understanding of filmmaking tools were very limited, imagine how much effort it took for a performance artist or an independent filmmaker to successfully execute a watchable film.

Film formats suitable for amateurs were introduced at the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the advent of Kodak's Super 8 in the mid 1960s that easy-to-use cameras became ubiquitous. With this accessibility, American avant-garde artists started using film as a medium for performance more than ever before. During this time, pop art, modernism and feminist art had taken up discussions on 'the image,' the self, and popular culture in general and so film was applied as one of the platforms to further this discussion.

Of these avant-garde films made in the 1960s, my current favorite is Yayoi Kusama's, Self Obliteration (1967). Kusama, born in Japan in 1929, has recently made a come back with exhibitions all over the world since 2010, but prior to her reemergence she had gone into the shadows, mostly of her own depression, since the late 1970s. Often working with repetition, dots, circles and spheres, Self Obliteration showcases the span of Kusama's work at that time through filmic depictions of her performances and installations.  

In reference to one of her earliest pieces, pre-dating the making of this film, Kusama inadvertently explains her concept behind Self Obliteration, including the film's name, and her motivation for the circular motifs in her work, by citing a particular experience she had as a child:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. 

This single experience, it seems, affected Kusama so much so that her above mentioned memory is thematic throughout the entire span of her work from the 1950s until now. Despite the marked hippie overtones that show through in her work even contemporarily, Kusama is able to express feminist ideas and challenge the status quo by applying simple and repetitious imagery whose undertones transcend her otherwise overt 1960s aesthetic. Her ability to make such an impression is what separates her from the rest of the "psychedelic," nude, and so-called politically based acts of the American hippie movement of the 1960s, distinguishing Kusama's work as high art rather than a fleeting pop cultural trend, so it makes sense that 50 years later, her work is finally getting recognition.


Courtney Cady ยฉ Bagtazo, 2015