Jonathan Schofield finds himself lost in an inflatable world of dots and loves it

Totally subjective rating: 10/10 because its big, fun and a bit silly. Forget the serious commentary and just enjoy the visual experience. 

Who: Yayoi Kusama, Tokyo-based nonagenarian artist who has experienced mental ill-health including visual hallucinations. Creating art, she says, has helped her cope with ‘traumatic mental states’ and puts her in touch with ‘cosmic unity’. In 1977 she admitted herself into a psychiatric hospital where she still lives. 

Where: Aviva Studios, Water Street, Manchester, M3 4JQ

When: 30 June-28 August

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You, Me and the Balloons Image: Confidentials

What MIF 2023 says: ‘Designed especially for Aviva Studio’s vast new warehouse space, the installation brings together for the first time a collection of Kusama’s most significant inflatable artworks from the past 30 years. (The installation) invites visitors to immerse themselves in Kusama’s psychedelic universe as they journey through a colourful landscape.’

What the artist says: “It would be interesting if people would experience the show as a wonderland. The experience of scale is what’s important. For me, the world is genuinely full of surprises. It is not that I want to inspire a childlike awe or wonder, but to inspire through my genuine perception of the world.”

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You, Me and the Balloons Image: Confidentials

What we say: Just enjoy this for its scale, colour, joyousness and daftness. It’s a wonderful and spectacular celebration of abstract forms with the odd doll-like creature thrown-in. Oh and a big pumpkin. 

Whatever the artist says it does inspire a childlike wonder. This is a Through the Looking Glass trip, artwork that takes one back to one’s early childhood and, for me, making a den under the kitchen table with all around supersized furniture, humans and a silly black labrador called Burlington. 

The show is cleverly and dramatically presented. Visitors enter into a chamber of vibrant yellow tentacles covered in polka dots which apparently suggest ‘roots, tentacles or even neural pathways in the brain’. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to let the mind drift and glide round the forms. This intro area is called ‘the hope of the polka dots buried in infinity will eternally cover the universe’. I know this because I read it in the handy guide. I also read a quote from Kasuma that ‘our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos’ and ‘polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of environment.’ 

I abandoned the guide right then because frankly I didn’t want to be told what I was looking at and have the magic destroyed by explanation.

I ascended steps from that first chamber and the breath-taking scale of the main installation unfolded. That is a jaw-dropper of a moment both for the Kasuma exhibition but also in revealing the scale of Aviva Studios. 

Then it was down more steps and time to wander among the inflatable dotted and dotty forms. Inevitably there’s the temptation to touch installations, but don’t, staff will come running to tell you off. And they’ll tell you off for wearing shoes in the only sit down space. How they intend to police kids from not touching the artworks is anybody’s guess? They beg to be touched. 

The cleverly placed large mirror in the main chamber appears to double its size. 

The far end of the room is a labyrinth of tentacle forms that is bewitching. The doll-like creatures less so, nightmarish like something from Squid Game. The most beautiful item is one of the smaller installations. This has a hole in the centre with a mirror interior reflecting an infinity of smaller polka dot balls. It’s a galaxy and a kaleidoscope. It’s truly mesmerising. 

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Constellations through the polka dot hole Image: Confidentials

High above the installations a screen depicts Kasuma gently singing. I picked up the guide again. She’s singing the ‘Song of a Manhattan suicide addict’ which could put a downer on proceedings but doesn’t. Kasuma’s murmurings, which seem both insane and eldritch, add an odd air of peace and tranquility.

Leaving the exhibition was a wrench, a return to cold normality, to adulthood and getting on with one’s day. Polka dots are named after the playful and giddy dance, the polka. Seems about right for You, Me and the Balloons.

How much: standard Tickets £15, affordable tickets £10 & £7.50, a maximum of 6 tickets per person applies.