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Bringing together a collection of Yayoi Kusama’s most significant inflatable works from the past 30 years—most not yet shown in the UK—is the major new site-specific installation You, Me and the Balloons at the Manchester International Festival 2023. Open through August 28, it marks the first large-scale UK presentation of her work since her acclaimed retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012.
The installation is the centerpiece of this year’s Manchester International Festival installation and brings the Japanese artist’s largest and most ambitious immersive environment to date, “conceived specifically as the first exhibition to take place in the vast warehouse of Aviva Studios, the new home of Factory International,” said Factory International’s artistic director and chief executive John McGrath.
Designed by Ellen van Loon of OMA architects, the ultra-flexible building is based around vast, adaptable spaces that can be constantly reconfigured “thanks to giant movable acoustic walls” said McGrath, enabling “multiple opportunities and endless configurations and environments” of which “the possibilities for the future are truly boundless.”
The 2,565 square meters of warehouse space allows artists to develop works of invention and ambition, of which Kusama’s inflatable sculptures—some over 10 meters tall—make great use.
“The experience of the scale is what’s important,” said Kusama. A precept applying not solely to the exhibition space but the artworks themselves, her inflatable wonderland sprouts a garden of giant dolls, gargantuan pumpkins, and writhing tentacles, coupled with cloud-like couches on which to lie, sit, or simply gaze.
Monumental and weightless, Kusama first started making these “Balloons” in the late 1990s. It was a medium that allowed her to work at colossal volume and scale, marking a turning point in her career and her boundary-pushing role in the post-war art movement. “Inflatable works expanded my creative means in terms of scale that could not have been achieved by stuffed soft sculptures, and the freedom of placing them up in the air,” said Kusama.
Appearing to defy gravity, the “Balloons” allow her to sculpt in space, creating art not just to look at but to dive in, offering a window into the exhilarating and hallucinatory world of the artist’s own experience, who herself sometimes sees polka dots all around her.
“Entering the exhibition, a tunnel leads visitors into a maze of large-scale biomorphic balloons rising floor to ceiling,” said McGrath. A new iteration of The Hope of the Polka Dots Buried in Infinity will Cover the Universe (2019), the colossal cephalopod-infested yellow chamber shoots up polka-dot-covered roots, tentacles, or neural pathways from the ground, twisting on themselves as they rise.
However, “the true scale of the space hits you once you ascend the stairs within the installation to a roof platform offering panoramic views of the wider exhibition featuring a giant pumpkin, inflatable dolls, mirrored spaces and polka-dot spheres hung from the ceiling,” said McGrath. All the while, the 94-year-old pink-haired Kusama appears on a giant screen chanting Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict (2007) above a forest of luminous purple tentacles.
As visitors descend, they are invited to forage through Kusama’s playground of curiosities, wandering through giant neon vegetables and mollusks teeming with polka dots which, cataloging 30 years of works in the making, are both peculiar and familiar, representational and abstract, eccentric if not slightly over the top, and very much an epitome of the artist they stem from.
As part of this year’s edition of the Manchester International Festival, Kusama’s inflatable wonderland opens aside an array of new works by world-leading artists including Ryan Gander, Maxine Peake, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tino Sehgal, and the former Manchester United footballer Juan Mata, unveiled across the city simultaneously on June 30.
Curated with the help of several partner organizations in Manchester and around the world, the artists each come with “something exciting to say to the world,” described McGrath, many of them reflecting on the personal experiences within the city’s diverse community.
Listed among them are The Find by Gander, a quest for 200,000 collectible coin artworks hidden across the city; a new performance by Sehgal at the National Football Museum; the first commission in a new collaborative project between former Manchester United footballer Mata and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist; and a celebration of our connection to water on the banks of the River Medlock by Risham Syed and Angie Bual.
Taking place in various locations in and around the city, the installations and performances offer only a glimpse of the continued visual artist program to come, “creating visual environments that will be truly spectacular,” said McGrath, and none more so than the renowned artist Es Devlin, who will be one of the lead creatives in their opening show.