Maria Bregman, a journalist, writer and contemporary art researcher

Manchester, June 2023 – Aviva Studios in Manchester has been transformed into a whimsical wonderland with the arrival of Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition, “You, Me and the Balloons.” This psychedelic pop-art showcase invites visitors into a realm of boundless imagination and vibrant colors, where everything is light, airy, and inflatable.

The exhibition, often compared to the iconic Turbine Hall, offers an unparalleled experience of joy and playfulness. Giant inflatable cushions provide a comfortable spot for some visitors to relax, while others eagerly queue to witness their infinite reflections inside a spherical mirror.

Upon entering the colossal orange and black vestibule, adorned with interwoven filaments, visitors are immediately enchanted by the otherworldly atmosphere. The immersive environment gives the impression of an underwater oasis or perhaps an octopus’s garden (apologies to Liverpool). The hope of encountering more captivating scenes grows as visitors ascend a black steel staircase, revealing a pop-art Garden of Earthly Delights from the elevated gantry.

Yayoi Kusama’s artistic journey began in 1960s New York, where she relocated from Japan. As one of the last remaining proponents of pure urban pop, Kusama’s work shares connections with artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Oldenburg. Suspended from the ceiling, ethereal forms reminiscent of Warhol’s Silver Balloons dangle, while a colossal soft pumpkin evokes Oldenburg’s saggy stuffed objects like his famous Floor Burger.

Yet, Kusama’s art stands apart with her choice of subjects. Unlike the typical pop art motifs of burgers and soup cans, Kusama’s affinity lies with pumpkins. This seemingly mundane object becomes her obsession, as she carefully studies the irregular and slightly freakish aspects of nature. The inflated pumpkin, with its majestic contentedness and almost foolish happiness, takes center stage, reflecting Kusama’s keen observations of the organic world.

However, the shapes of Kusama’s art are not the sole focus; it is the abundance of dots that infuse her work with life. Flowing highways and close constellations of expanding and contracting dots fill every corner of the exhibition. While abstract in nature, Kusama’s disciplined system of dots transcends medium, immersing the behemoth space in her artistic imprint.

Critics may argue that Kusama’s style has become ubiquitous and lacking in meaning. Her reflective Infinity Mirror Rooms, including one featured in this exhibition, may appear vacuous with their infinite mirrorings of nothingness. Yet, this is the essence of modern art. Like Warhol, Kusama fearlessly embraces the potential absurdity of her art to capture the essence of contemporary culture. The innocence of her inflatable dolls and the whimsy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” may seem consumeristic, but within the scale and setting of this exhibition, their intensity behind the silliness shines through the balloon forest.

In its grandeur, Kusama’s vision expresses a profound need to be understood. Her voluntary residence in Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo since 1977 is well known, and her appreciation for the peculiar forms of nature echoes the sentiments of Vincent van Gogh, who also found reflections of his being in irregular natural shapes. On this sublime scale, Kusama’s once-commercial pumpkins transform into a pop-art answer to van Gogh’s Sunflowers, evoking a sense of awe and wonder.

“You, Me and the Balloons” is an exhibition that aims to connect and be felt. It showcases Kusama’s unfiltered artistic impulse and her sincere desire to reach out and touch the hearts of viewers. The monumental scale of the exhibition reflects a generosity of spirit, leaving visitors with a feeling of happiness, satisfaction, and a profound sense of being alive.

Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons will be on display at Aviva Studios in Manchester until August 28, 2023.

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