Review: Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons – Manchester International Festival / Aviva Studios / Factory International ★★½
A two-room, underwhelming, yet eye-catching opening for Manchester’s Factory International.
Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons | Aviva Studios, Manchester | Until 28 August 2023 | £15 (Affordable tickets £10 & £7.50)
Yayoi Kusama is a 95 year old Japanese artist with an incredible history, from performance art in the 1960s to large scale polka dot inflatables of today. Her work is often used as an Insta-friendly crowd-puller, and this is the Manchester International Festival’s main draw to get people to travel to the new Aviva Studios (Home of Factory International).
That billing is a confusing mess, as both a venue (Aviva Studios), festival (Manchester International Festival) and arts organisation (Factory International) are all in play, though despite all the brands signage is minimal en route. You feel more like you’re on a construction yard site visit than arriving at the UK’s major new arts space. The whole area is a giant development site for trendy flats, with Aviva Studios nestled in the middle of a quite uninspiring sea of grey despite being close to the River Irwell. There is so much well-thought out development happening in Manchester – like Depot Mayfield, which understands the power of green space and beauty – which is sadly missing at Aviva Studios.
The exhibition itself comprises of just two main rooms. The first is a compact floor-to-ceiling yellow explosion, with a sea of black dots cascading serpent-like from the ceiling. The second is a large black box warehouse space, yearning for Turbine Hall comparisons, filled with inflatables. The first room captures the overwhelming nature of Kusama’s work at its immersive best. Having seen the artist’s work in her UK representative’s gallery, Victoria Miro, years ago, this in-your-face space feels most in keeping with the issues behind the spectacle of mental health, psychology, feminism, sex, synesthesia and colour.
The second room, however, is a bit of a mess, with the inflatables being too spread out to be overwhelming. Nothing quite matches the moment you arrive on a viewing platform and see the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ style bonkers-ness. Cue a sea of pink tentacles, mushroom red and white works and a giant doll. The cloud sofas where you can look up at other works are a bit disappointing, as there’s not actually much to gaze up at.
The space feels cold like a car showroom, and needed to do something about the black walls and edges (as well as adding a way out sign!). Unlike the gritty warehouse spaces of Thin Air at Beams, this all feels a little IKEA, and is in desperate search of some soul.
Kusama is an incredibly important female contemporary artist who needs to be seen as more than just kooky, selfie fodder. This exhibition misses the chance to explore this, instead playing it safe by merely showcasing spectacular scale works that will look great on the socials.
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like free, cheap & offbeat London, especially: cabaret, art, theatre, pop-ups, eating out, quirky films, museums, day trips, social enterprise & much more.