Published  07/07/2023

Manchester International Festival 2023

Manchester International Festival 2023

From a polka-dot tastic show from Yayoi Kusama to an unlikely combination of footballers and musicians, we look at what this year’s festival has to offer

Yayoi Kusama, You, Me and the Balloons, installation view, Manchester International Festival 2023, Aviva Studios. Photo © David Levene.

Various venues, Manchester
29 June – 16 July 2023


Manchester’s biennial arts festival kicked off at the end of June with many bangs, a wallop, a jingle and a splash, but the dominant element at the press launch was air – millions of cubic feet of it. It has been pumped into a multitude of Yayoi Kusama’s inflatables for her largest ever UK show, You, Me and the Balloons. These giant structures swamp the eye with their spots and curves and fill every crevice and corner of a new exhibition space in Aviva Studios.

Aviva Studios,Manchester, home of Factory International, June 2023. Photo: David Levene.

The studios are part of a much-trumpeted cultural hub, Factory International, designed by the Rotterdam-based architects Office for Metropolitan Architecture. This 10-year cultural regeneration project has sunk a large hole in the city’s finances, as well as receiving £106.5m from Arts Council England – the council’s largest ever spend on a capital project. Unfortunately, completion is now not scheduled until October, and the zone was still a construction site when visiting journalists were taken round at the end of June. The stench of heavy-duty street-marking equipment and the bangs, crashes and droning drills of construction filled the air.

Yayoi Kusama, You, Me and the Balloons, installation view, Manchester International Festival 2023, Aviva Studios. Photo: Martin Kennedy.

Aviva Studios’ foyer, bar and main exhibition venue were open for business. Here, we were told by John McGrath, Manchester International Festival’s artistic director and chief executive of Factory International, that we would see “the world’s biggest exhibition of inflatables”. These are not words to spark joy in the average art critic’s heart, but up the concrete stairs we trooped to witness the polka-dot-tastic exhibition of Kusama’s oversized dolls, balloons, tentacles, pumpkins and clouds. The show appeared to have been curated for Instagram rather than to reveal anything meaningful about the artist, whose work was once known for its anti-racist, anti-sexist rage and activism but seems latterly to have been channelled into the production of ever-more supremely photogenic spotted and mirrored works. These, in turn, have inspired a tsunami of “likes” on global social media – making her a go-to artist for a venue desiring to maximise footfall and traction from even the wariest, culturally disengaged visitor.

Tino Sehgal and Juan Mata, This Entry at Manchester International Festival 2023. Photo: David Levene.

Manchester is not lacking in football fans, with two world-class teams fighting it out for dominance. And so to the aforementioned wallop: this was resounding around Manchester’s National Football Museum, in celebration of This Entry, Tino Sehgal’s newest piece, launched at the museum and devised together with über-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and footballer Juan Mata. But, aside from a photo opportunity kickabout between the main protagonists, staged by the BBC for a forthcoming documentary, no balls were kicked in the work itself; instead, there were more than 30 minutes of exquisite physical skills deployed by various individuals at a brain-numbingly glacial pace in a kind of slow-motion action replay ballet involving some very unlikely sporting and musical bedfellows.

Other visual artists starring in this year’s selection include award-winning photographer Benji Reid, and a host of new artists and participatory artworks being unveiled at the Whitworth in a stimulating – and potentially revolutionary - new exhibition, Economics the Blockbuster: It’s Not Business As Usual. Alongside these staged events and exhibitions, a group of artists will be working in residency with communities in the Greater Manchester area, including El Conde de Torrefiel, the Nest Collective, Shilpa Gutpa and FAFSWAG. True to its reputation for multidisciplinarity, other MIF23 highlights include a world premiere at Bridgewater Hall of a John Luther Adams composition inspired by arctic landscapes, a night of dance music at New Century Hall with DJ Ben UFO and choreography by Sharon Eyal, and a play billed as a “dystopian masterpiece”, at the John Rylands library, adapted by Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight.

• See also video interviews with Tino Sehgal, Ryan Gander and Risham Syed.

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