The footballing legend of Manchester United, Juan Mata, is participating in an avant-garde performance, not at the fringes of Berlin Gallery Weekend—but at the National Football Museum in Manchester, at the opening of Manchester International Festival.
Let us hope Jose Mourinho never gets to see his former employee enjoying himself so frivolously. For a lovely smile opened up over the footballer’s face as he stood across from his co-performers. He jiggled his hands, hopped around on his toes, twirled and spun and bounced around in curlicues. He then effortlessly juggled a football, like it was attached to a string, as the other performers danced around him.
Mata is an artist on a football pitch; famed for his ability to maintain balance when moving at full speed. He looked just as at home in Tino Sehgal’s This entry, which mediates (in a slightly indulgent, esoteric way) on what it means to maintain a sense of balance as we are propelled through life on this spherical thing called Earth.
Was Mata coerced into this? Anything but. He has co-curated this with his friend Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, part of an ongoing, two-year project titled The Trequartista.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Mata says he had a passing interest in art as a child, but the demands of making it as an elite footballer took up too much of his time.
“Growing up, I was a curious person,” he says. “My professional career was my priority. I wanted to play football, but I was always looking for other interests as well.”
He developed a friendship with Obrist while playing for Chelsea in London. “When I moved to London, I became a lot more interested in art,” he says. “And then, when I was living in Manchester, if I had some time off, I would go to galleries and museums and begin to understand what I like. Hans and I stayed in touch, and through him I met a lot of people.”
One of those was the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal. “I realised his views on art and my views on football crossed over,” Mata says.
“My priority now is to learn about art, to understand it better,” Mata says of his future plans. “It can be difficult to understand. Maybe I will start collecting, but not yet.”
Mata was the celebrity pull of the Manchester International Festival. But another gargantuan presence loomed over the festival; the building which hosts the festival itself.
This is a soft opening for, as it’s now known, ‘Aviva Studios, the home of Factory International’.
Factory International has been renamed after the insurance company Aviva stumped up a fair sum in sponsorship—in return for naming rights. Factory International, named as a tribute to the city’s own Factory Records, has been in the making for more than a decade. The venue is the highest capital investment project in the history of Arts Council England, with more than £106m coming directly from central government. But, nevertheless, the construction has gone flying over budget; in October of last year, the council confirmed that overall costs had topped £211m, costing at that point more than £100m more than first estimated. The costs are sure to continue going upwards.
The venue announced the news of its partnership with Aviva on 20 June, just ten days before this soft opening. But, speaking anecdotally, the venue is still being called Factory International by everyone connected to it. Bev Craig, the leader of Manchester City Council, and John McGrath, the artistic director of the festival, seem to be attempting a neat linguistic trick. The organisation that will work, forevermore, within the building—that will programme, curate and launch all of its shows—is called Factory International, but the building itself is called Aviva Studios.
Craig calls the building “beautiful, but not yet fully completed”. The cafe is serving the macchiatos and artisan banana bread but plenty of men in high visibility jackets continue their work a few meters from the building’s main entrance. Wires still hang from ceilings and the whir of heavy machinery echoes through the venue’s new atrium. The race is on for its official opening in October.
The selfie factory
The festival’s headline act is an exhibition of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s inflatable works, titled You, Me and the Balloons (until 28 August).
Kusama’s life is, on every level, extraordinary. Born in the Japanese Alps, her family home was surrounded by fields of pumpkins. She experienced invasive hallucinations as a teenager throughout the Second World War, and witnessed the fall-out of the atomic bombs at the age of 16. As a young artist, she became Georgia O’Keefe’s pen-pal after writing to the ageing American artist through the US Information Services. She moved to New York in her mid-20s, dollars sewn into the seams of the clothes she wore on the boat over. As an artist in America, she was victim to Orientalism, misogyny, depression and suicidal ideation. The city’s gatekeepers marginalised her, lesser artists ripped off her work. She has lived for the last decades of her life in a psychiatric institution in her native Japan.
Kusama’s first mirror room was in 1966. To denigrate her position in the annals of contemporary art history would be churlish. But is her work right for Factory International?
The venue is obviously trying to reach the widest of audiences. In October, for example, the filmmaker Danny Boyle is directing a contemporary dance performance based on the movie franchise The Matrix. Ensuring, from the off, that Factory is accessible to the entire strata of Manchester’s society is a good thing.
But there is a feeling Kusama is here because the kids like her. She is the artist of the iPhone, doyen of the selfie generation.
The exhibition plays up to this, and thusly it feels more like a theme park than an art show. The labels, which are written well, are marginalised. There’s no sense of the story of her life. It’s called You, Me and the Balloons, and it’s pretty much that. You and your mobile, Kusama’s patterns and spots printed on large, swollen balloons. It’s fun, no doubt, but one half expects to round a huge neon tendril and find a stall selling polka dot candy floss or inviting you to hook ducks for a fluffy prize. Other artists will surely use this gargantuan space in more interesting, challenging ways.
A ‘family-friendly’ start, then; but more serious art is also on show at the festival. The Whitworth Art Gallery, now directed by the Korean curator Sook-Kyung Lee, formerly of the Tate, is opening two exhibitions to coincide with the festival. The first, Economics the Blockbuster—It’s not Business as Usual (until 22 October), features a collection of artworks that, the gallery says, “reimagine and disrupt conventional ideas of value, ownership, trade and economy”.
The highlight is a video installation by the Congo-based art collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) who are developing a new template for how non-fungible tokens and blockchain technology can be used as potent tools for restitution claims.
The collective includes Ced’art Tamasala and Matthieu Kasiama, two artists affiliated with White Cube, a contemporary art gallery in Lusanga, a rural town in the Congo. Tamasala are Kasiama are also members of the Indigenous Pende people; during Belgium’s colonial occupation of the Congo, a sacred Pende relic was forcibly taken from their ancestors. The relic is now held in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia.
The Whitworth show details how Tamasala are Kasiama have minted a series of NFTs of available photographs of the relic; a way of owning it in the digital space, even as the object itself stands encased in a glass vitrine in Virginia. The museum has refused to return the relic to the CATPC or to the White Cube space in Lusanga, even as a temporary loan. It responded to the CATPC’s action by launching a legal copyright claim, saying in a statement that the launch of the NFTs “violates our open access policy and is unacceptable and unprofessional”. As fellow institutions like the Whitworth begin to display the work of Tamasala and Kasiama, it feels like the VMFA’s stance may not remain sustainable for long.
In the adjoining room holds the exhibition Albrecht Dürer’s material world (until 10 March 2024), the first time the Whitworth has seriously exhibited its collection of works by the German artist in over half a century.
The exhibition is the culmination of a five-year scholarly project driven by art historians at the University of Manchester, looking at the influence the Nuremberg-based artist had on the development of printing in the German Renaissance of the late 15th century.
“We’re looking at Dürer through the prism of material culture,” says Edward Wouk, a co-curator of the show and a lecturer in art history at the university. “Dürer was an intense observer of manufacturing and consumption in Nuremberg,” Wouk adds, pointing out how the artist would assimilate German objects of the time into his etchings of classical religious scenes. Wouk highlights the Dürer woodcut titled Apocalypse, which depicts a scene from the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
“This is Dürer’s vision of the end of days,” Wouk says. “But, all of a sudden, you can see candlesticks or drinking vessels which are actually examples of contemporary Nuremberg designs. So he’s grounding these classical images of God in the world of material manufacture and consumption.”
So Dürer did what Andy Warhol became famous for, 500 years later, in the 1960s? “Yes, but so much better,” Wouk says. “Warhol was just crude in comparison.”
The festival is not just confined to the city’s institutions. At Selfridges, the city’s biggest shopping centre, the artist Ryan Gander has set up a typically irreverent takedown of value and consumerism; a vending machine filled with stones, each signed by the artist. Pay a tenner—all proceeds go to the festival— and a collectible stone is yours. It is worth standing in the entrance of Selfridges to watch people working out whether they should purchase one or not.
But the highlight of the whole experience was, perhaps, found in Mayfield Park, the first new city park in Manchester for more than 100 years. The 6.5-acre parkland, home to more than 120,000 plants, is built around the River Medlock. It now plays host to Each Tiny Drop, an installation of sorts by the Lahore-based Pakistani artist Risham Syed.
This is a pilgrimage to the thing that sustains us; Syed has brought water from the Soan River in Pakistan, inviting us to steward it into the River Medlock. A poem, written by the artist’s father and sung by the artist herself, is the soundtrack to this peaceful, solemn undertaking. It is the perfect note to end on; a conjuring of the base elements that make this world so rich.
- Manchester International Festival 2023, until 16 July, various venues, Manchester