From the most popular living female artist to the most important product designer of our times — these documentaries offer a behind-the-scenes look at the lives behind the excellence
Art: Kusama — Infinity
Who is it about: Yayoi Kusama is one of the most expensive living female artists. Her blockbuster solo exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore saw visitors queuing around the building for hours, just to take a selfie in one of her immersive, mirrored Infinity Rooms. Despite her runaway success at museums and auctions, the Japanese artist has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital for more than thirty years, suggesting a more tragic side to her multi-coloured universe.
A little-known fact we learnt: Kusama crashed the 1966 Venice Biennale, one of the most important artistic platforms in the world. Although she was not formally invited, she crept up to the lawn in front of the Italian Pavilion early in the morning and sneakily set up 1,500 small mirrored globes. She went on to tout her art to visitors for just two dollars with the description, “your narcissism for sale”. Kusama has described selling this work, titled “Narcissus Garden” like selling “ice cream and hot dogs”.
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Who’s it about: From pioneering synth-pop as part of Japanese electronic trio Yellow Magic Orchestra to winning an Oscar for his score to The Last Emperor in 1988, Ryuichi Sakamoto has become one of the most respected composers of his generation. Listening to one of his instrumental tracks feels like a spiritual experience, deeply peaceful yet effervescent with emotion. This cinematic portrait was made over a five-year period when he was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer.
A little-known fact we learnt: The documentary provides an illuminating insight into the enigmatic man and his mysterious creative process: he saved a Yamaha baby grand piano that survived the 2011 tsunami (“I felt I was playing the corpse of a piano that drowned”) and he wore a bucket on his head to catch the sounds of falling raindrops outside his door in Tokyo.
Who’s it about: For over fifty years, German industrial designer Dieter Rams has left an indelible mark on the field of product design and the world at large with his often-copied legendary work at consumer product company Braun. You would probably be one of the millions who has bought, used or seen one of his iconic objects, whether it’s his Oral-B toothbrush or Vitsoe 606 shelving system.
A little-known fact we learnt: His design work might be seriously minimal and at times sterile, but the man is decidedly hilarious. No one escapes his snarky, bitchy and off-handed humour, not even design luminaries Frank Gehry and Philippe Stark or tech giants Apple and Facebook, who were laughing along at one of the recent screenings.
TV: Won’t You Be My Neighbour
Who’s it about: While it might not have taken off in Singapore, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the must-watch television show for generations of American children, not unlike Blue’s Clues or Hi-5. It flipped all the tropes of made-for-kids television on its head. There was no flashy production, slapstick acting or simplistic storytelling; instead in its place was a simple down-to-earth set, an affable middle-aged man and a culturally provocative narrative that touched on difficult subjects such as race, divorce and death. This documentary isn’t an exposé on Fred Rogers because there’s nothing sinister to uncover, just his radical ambition to bring kindness and empathy into living rooms all over the world.
A little-known fact we learnt: Everything the man says is worthy of a hashtag or put in the bold imprint of a quote. With more children facing violence, bullying and loneliness globally, nothing spoke truer than: “If we in public television can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” Mediacorp, this one’s for you.
Film: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
Who’s it about: How can a man who made everyone laugh-out-loud on stage and screen, crumble with insecurity and addiction when he didn’t have an audience? This is the life story of wacky American comedian Robin Williams who was beloved by many for his high-energy manic comedy until he took his own life in 2014 while suffering from Lewy body dementia.
A little-known fact we learnt: Williams changed the way his sitcoms were filmed. On the set of Mark & Mindy, he was such a firecracker, running around so wild that the three static cameras they had couldn’t keep up. A fourth handheld camera was brought in, just to follow Williams around and capture every single off-the-cuff improvisation.
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