Please join us this evening at 1113 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. from 5–9 pm for the final night of Martin Creed’s balloon installation Half the air in a given space, open specially on the occasion of the Spotlight on Edgewater Arts Showcase.
One of the best aspects of being a “balloon wrangler” at each of the MCA’s four installations of Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space in different locations around Chicago has been the interaction I’ve had with the public.
As an artist and former employee of various art-exhibiting organizations, I’ve certainly had occasion to experience participatory artworks and to interact with the public in an art context. However, there’s something about this project that sets it apart from those past experiences and brings the level of interactivity to a much higher place.
Maybe it’s the absurd amount of balloons in one room, lending a party atmosphere to the piece. Maybe it’s the fact that you can be completely submerged in and surrounded by them yourself, as if fulfilling some childhood fantasy. Or maybe it’s simply that we balloon wranglers must necessarily be so hands-on—constantly encouraging participation, providing information, and running around chasing loose balloons like circus clowns.
Whatever the reasons, intentional visitors and curious bystanders alike are disarmed into having fun, asking questions, and giving feedback. Nearly everyone who experiences the artwork by entering the balloon-filled space ultimately steps out with a large grin, and the most common response upon exiting is “That was awesome!”
When I worked at galleries, I used to love getting the occasional “big” art questions from visitors: What does this mean? How is this art? Why did the artist do this? Unfortunately, even though these questions usually led to a rewarding discussion for everyone involved, they were somewhat rare. When I’m wrangling balloons for the MCA, however, I get to answer these questions every day I go to work.
When I heard that Martin Creed’s Half the air in a given space would be installed at the Garfield Park Conservatory, I jumped at the chance to work as a “balloon wrangler.” The Conservatory has long been one of my favorite places in Chicago, and the prospect of slingin’ some art while in the midst of flowers exotic and local . . . no brainer, right? The audience response at the Conservatory was varied. Many people seemed to think the piece, a room half-filled with balloons, was only for children, or even a children’s playroom. This was partially due to the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike that went on for two of the weeks that the installation was up, but nonetheless waves of children with parents on impromptu field trips made a happy discovery. There were times, after successive trammelings, when the balloons got very low, drastically changing the dynamic of the space.
One day, an avuncular old man sat across from us and began to pepper us with factoids about plants and the Conservatory: “Before the Chihuly exhibit [there was a lot of Chihuly chatter] almost nobody came to the Conservatory,” “Did you know that poinsettia were named for the US’s first ambassador to Mexico? They grow wild down there,” “Did you know that a woman has all of the eggs that she will ever have in her life, by the age of 13?” Ok, that was a weird one, but it was said. He kept repeating “check the Internet, you can find it on the Internet, I didn’t find it on the Internet, but it’s there.” He was a joy to be around.
On another day a young man came in with a DV camera and asked to film the balloons. I said, “Of course.” After a long time in the work, he talked with me excitedly about it, called his friends to come check it out, and, before leaving, went up to the security guard and asked, “Hey I know this neighborhood’s reputation, and I was wondering what might be a good area to go check out, to film like wasteland type areas and urban blight, you know? Like Detroit.”
Hoosh! I guess at some point it’s in the culture, this eavesdropping, snooping-out of meaning, or simply the exoticism of the abstracted landscape, the “danger zone.” I sensed a familiar naïveté about the city from this young man and this is what I like about the Creed project: its messy engagement with other spaces in the metropolis and the variant responses that are forced from this reach. Who knows, maybe this John Waters, Jr. captured some insightful, groundbreaking new footage on his voyage. Or maybe he catalogued one more undergraduate’s pixelpoem to “heaviness,” “realness,” and himself. The room could be half-empty or half-full.
Entering the sea of balloons from Martin Creed’s Work No. 1190, Half the air in a given space (2011) was not at all like I expected. As the Social Media Coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago I had already seen a number of pictures of smiling, laughing people posted on Twitter, so I hitched a ride with another staff member to see the artwork that everyone was enjoying firsthand.
It being a Monday morning it was peaceful at the Hyde Park Art Center, and I was ushered into the balloon gallery alone. Immediately I had some reservations, along with a bemused smile. Balloons quickly and completely envelop you—that’s part of the fun, but it’s also disorientating. Your attention is immediately drawn to your physical being. Even as your senses are hindered by balloons, they seem to be at their height as you attempt to negotiate a path through the balloons. I imagine the feeling is something like a sensory-deprivation chamber; your faculties are paradoxically heightened as they are impeded. Your sight is compromised by balloons, reduced to only a couple of feet immediately in front of you, peripheral vision is cut off entirely. Your nose is filled with the smell of latex (allergic visitors please beware). That day the room was silent, interrupted only by loud squeaks of balloons on balloons as I attempted to move, which once again drew my attention to my bodily movement through the space.
This is a dimension of the serious side of Martin Creed’s very playful and fun artwork—its ability to bring your attention to the space you inhabit every day, but perhaps do not always notice: your body. You could write this work off as too crowd-pleasing, not “serious” enough, but that would miss what the artist is trying to show you about yourself.
Work No. 792 (2007) begins from a small green Lego baseplate. Attached to the foundation is a red rectangular brick. Atop this brick is a smaller brick, still rectangular, but white. The structure rises with alternating colors for twenty-two bricks. From this point, the size of the bricks shrinks once again and rises another eighty-eight square bricks. Just shy of the final 111th brick is a single yellow block with two small white eyes.
Creed’s choice of two works to flank the entrance to Skyscraper materially and structurally reflects a relative simplicity. Work No. 792 and Work No. 916 (a stack of nine empty cardboard boxes descending in size from smallest to largest) are a sort of parenthetical to the exhibition. They remind us of one of the most generative stages of a structure’s development. Marked by the playful nature of childhood, these stacks are also the eager moments of the architect’s first rendering; a space of imagination; a gesture that suggests a drive to heights that complement the extreme angles one is willing to crane one’s neck in order to see to the top.
The stacks reflect the skeletal nature of our tall buildings—of their ability to wear and shed various skins. The alternating colors of the Lego bricks are no matter; they can be marble or glass, steel or concrete. The height, the direct rise of Work No. 792, is a hanger for our vertical desires. As an advertisement for the feat of ascension it is also a bit of a weary warning. These stacks are only models. They can be only childhood imaginings. In the same moment of possibility we find the projects that languish, those that must remain unbuilt, left as visionary (or just childish) dreams.