Two singular Japanese artists are the subject of superb documentaries at the Byron Bay Film Festival this month (October).
Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s search for new sounds – especially natural or “found” sounds – leads him to standing outside in the rain with a plastic bucket over his head, listening to the noise the drops make as they land.
The film Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, screening at the Byron Bay Film Festival, documents that obsessive search and how it fuels Sakamoto’s compositions, along with much else about the innovative musician, activist, writer, actor and dancer.
We watch – and listen – as he slides a violin bow across a cymbal’s edge, pounds a hollow log and plucks away at a piano that has been “warped and frayed” by its drowning in the tsunami that devastated Fukushima in 2011 – the focus of Sakamoto’s other preoccupation, the insanity of the world’s embrace of the nuclear option, be it for power or weaponry.
His artistry and activism are intertwined and the search always uncovers something more than sound: in the film it takes him, thrillingly, to the Arctic and to Africa. Seeking to answer the question “why are we such a violent species?” he travels to Northern Kenya, to the site where Turkana Boy – the oldest human remains – were found.
“It’s where we all came from,” he says. “The African Exodus started with a family group of about 30 – our universal ancestors. We are all ‘African’. So the notion of race is a false concept.”
And in music he finds a commonality: “Africa is a vast continent but it has one universal rhythm pattern. That family shared one language, one music… the first sounds we made as humans, our original language. What songs were sung? What was our first language?”
He is struck by the “minimal and modest” community living there still, and gleefully reports recording “some great sounds” at the site, and using them “at length in my song Only Love Can Conquer Hate”.
Sakamoto is fascinated by water and in the Arctic Circle he tramps across boulders and snow to drill down through the ice to locate water running below – the sound of snow melting. He is “fishing” for the sound, he says, and records it, capturing “the purest sound I have ever heard”. He incorporates these pellucid tinkles into a later work, Glacier, along with the tingshas, or Tibetan hand cymbals he plays within that wind-swept realm.
This mixture of natural sounds and instrumentation creates “a sonic blending that is both chaotic and unified”, and segments of it within the film, alongside his calm and modest musings, make Coda an enriching aesthetic and meditative experience.
For the sounds all have a significance beyond the aural – in the Arctic he is “at the frontlines of global warming” the melting snow below the ice a sound from a pre-industrial age, when the Earth was a healthier place.
Footage of these expeditions pre-dates a diagnosis of throat cancer in 2014 – something that made him put a compositional project on hold, and indeed stop playing altogether.
But in their expansiveness – in the breadth of Sakamoto’s curiosity and wonder at nature – they mirror the expansiveness that comes as he re-emerges into creativity, into composition once again, despite the cancer.
A humble heroism is revealed: while ill he remained active in the anti-nuclear fight, and towards the film’s end he is brave enough to enter the contamination zone around Fukushima, and walk along the seafront, his Geiger counter going off the scale.
The camera circles him repeatedly, expressing the giddy sensation of absorbing the unbelievable reality of a radio-active ocean.
It is a gross example of humanity’s impact on nature: Sakamoto sees that impact everywhere, even in the magnificent piano he composes on – an instrument only made possible by the Industrial Revolution which created machines capable of exerting the tremendous pressure needed to bend the wood out of its natural shape to suit the tastes of humanity.
The tsunami piano takes on a new significance: a chord he has played on it leaps out as he is listening to his latest composition. It sounds damaged, melancholic – a bit like the composer himself – but fits perfectly into the musical work.
And, he suggests, the piano’s transformation in the tsunami is one in which nature reasserts itself, slowly taking the man-made object back to its natural state.
Sakamoto is probably best known in the West as the composer of scores for films such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, and these are lovingly referenced here. Some of his work since, such as the haunting Oppenheimer’s Aria, has more social and political weight, and the film score for The Revenant has an especial richness and emotional heft.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda will be of interest to anyone concerned with current Japan, or with nuclear power, or even those interested in witnessing a man’s response to cancer. Fans of his music will gain a deeper understanding of the beautiful spirit of its creator.
For them, and for all music lovers, and anyone interested in watching a great artist imagine and create, it is especially fascinating.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a documentary, not a thriller, but it still seems wrong to give away the end. Suffice to say that Sakamoto is performing in Melbourne and at the Opera House later this month.
Kusama – Infinity, a 17-year project conceived by American filmmaker Heather Lenz, brings Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s fascinating journey to life through rich imagery, archival material interspersed with great snapshots from 1960s America—media imagery, archival video footage and photographs—together with short interviews with key museum figures and Kusama’s long-time friends and associates. Importantly, the narrative includes readings and interviews with the artist and revealing insights into her art practice. The film presents a chronological overview of a colourful life—a story of struggle, of hard times and above all, one of fierce ambition.
Today, Yayoi Kusama (b.1929 Matsumoto, Japan) is the most successful living female artist, although this is a relatively recent accolade. It is only in the past 30 years of her prolific career that she has gained greater recognition for her contribution to contemporary art. Her practice is far-ranging: painting, sculpture, fashion designer, installation, collage, performance art, film, poetry, novels and anthologies. In 1968, she starred in her award-winning film Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (directed by experimental filmmaker Jud Yalkut). In 1969, she opened a boutique and in 2012 co-created the Louis Vuitton + Yayoi Kusama Collection.
Kusama – Infinity affirms the artist’s important contribution to the story of art; her unrelenting desire to succeed (against the odds)—with little support from her family (and eventual repudiation), many years of patchy interest from gallerists, ongoing illness and intense competition from the male-dominated art scene in 1960s New York.
Central to the narrative is the formative New York years (1958–73). Lenz acknowledges Georgia O’Keeffe’s importance and the adoration Kusama received from the reclusive genius Joseph Cornell. While Kusama failed to achieve the fame she so eagerly desired in the 1960s and a fraction of that enjoyed by her male counterparts—Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Jackson Pollock— she remained loyal to her practice, consistently depicting her obsessions and inner torments.
Following her move to the United States, Kusama began producing Infinity Nets paintings; in the early 1960s, soft sculptures (continuous productions of her fears—the phallus—in an attempt to self-therapy); in December 1963 her first installation Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (which inspired Warhol); and less than three years later, her ground-breaking Peep Show/ Endless Love Show (first Infinity/mirror room). From the mid-1960s Kusama was staging Happenings (often anti-war/pro-peace performances incorporating her trademark dot painted onto naked performers) that attracted much publicity in the US and Europe and a backlash in Japan.
Lenz’s film begins and ends in Japan—from a prosperous, dysfunctional family, having a troubled childhood and experiencing frightening visions from a young age, to her return to Japan in 1973, decline in health and self-hospitalisation (to this day her place of residence) and return to a fervent art practice and ultimately global recognition.
In the years following her move back to Japan, Kusama’s work received little attention. In the 1980s there was renewed interest in her work and this increased in the 1990s. The final chapter of the film outlines some key exhibitions: from ‘Yayoi Kusama: Retrospective’ at the Center for International Contemporary Arts, New York in 1989; to the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993 (Narcissus Garden was her unofficial entry in the 1966 biennale) where she was the first artist to stage a solo exhibition in the Japanese pavilion; and ‘Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958–1968’ a major retrospective, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1998) and travelled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Today, museums are eager to exhibit her work: high visitor numbers are guaranteed. Her Infinity rooms attract long queues and when on display her work The obliteration room (2002–present, in the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection) is obliterated in days as visitors clamour to stick coloured dots to a white room filled with white-painted furniture. Her audience is far-ranging, and her work lends itself well to an ever-increasing world of social media users—museum visitors eager to capture themselves in her wondrous infinities.
Kusama tells the story of climbing the Empire State Building soon after first arriving in the city in the late 1950s and there deciding to conquer New York. Whilst she did not achieve the success she craved during this stage of her career, Kusama: Infinity is proof that now she has conquered the art world. With her popularity unrelenting, the release of Lenz’s film is timely.
By Emily Gray and Digby Hildreth
The Byron Bay Film Festival runs from October 12-21. Kusama: Infinity screens at 7.30pm on Thursday, October 18 at Byron Community Centre. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda screens four times at the festival, in Byron Bay, Brunswick Heads and Murwillumbah. Program and tickets at BBFF.com.au