Drop acid or read horror master H.P. Lovecraft, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like to encounter Jason Hackenwerth’s gargantuan floating sculptures for the first time.
Iridescent protoplasmic blobs and swarms of protruding tentacles loom high above, creating an atmosphere of disconcerting strangeness. But unlike bad trips or aliens, these monstrous creations don’t horrify – they amaze. Especially once you realize what you’re looking at: balloons. Thousands of the long, skinny kind ordinarily twisted into poodles are instead woven into works of protean grandeur.
“A balloon is a benign object that anyone can afford, but connected they transcend their individuality to become something greater, larger than life,” the 42-year-old artist says.
“It’s a metaphor for what we’re capable of as a species when we unite.”
Hackenwerth has metamorphosed the mundane into the marvelous at big-name arts festivals and museums around the world, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Jang Heung Art Park in Seoul, Art Basel in Miami Beach, the Great Hall of Dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, as well as atop an ancient lava flow in Oregon.
Such alchemy is not easy. For a 2011 oceanic environmental campaign, Hackenwerth transformed the atrium of the London department store Selfridges into a colossal coral reef jellyfish colony. He and six assistants labored 10 hours for each of 11 days to inflate and twist 35,000 balloons.
Limited workspace at the 2011 Hong Kong Art Fair required him, working with four assistants and a half-dozen volunteers, to produce a sculpture in five separate sections over one week – and then to squeeze each inflated structure through double doors to install in the convention center’s huge entryway in a single evening. Assembled, the enormous cantilevered form stretched 50 feet, undulating in the air.
Yet no amount of sweat, no degree of bulk, can ward off the inevitable. With time, each monumental creation slowly loses air, drooping and wilting until what once filled a museum shrivels down to a blob about the size of a Pomeranian. Sometimes the piece lives only a night or two, as for TED talks in 2007 and 2009, or for a museum gala. On those occasions, Hackenwerth gives the gift of life and then takes it away, slashing and popping his own work. “My art isn’t collectible, but that’s fine,” he says. In fact, its fleeting life span only underscores its rarity and generates a sense of urgency to see it while it’s up.
Hackenwerth began his career conventionally enough in 2003, when he arrived in New York City with a BFA from Webster University in his native St. Louis and an MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. “I started creating objects and paintings not that different from a thousand others,” he recalls. “I needed to find material to make my work stand out.”
Over years of struggle for recognition and money, he shelved groceries, waited tables, sold cars, and when seriously short of cash, grudgingly fell back on a talent he inherited from his mother, who entertained children by twisting balloon animals. In New York he ultimately graduated to gallery jobs, but the pitiful pay and dismal subway commute weighed heavily on his spirits, until an idea floated into his head – rather like a balloon.
He began to experiment with manipulating balloons into fantastical forms. Then, at four o’clock one morning in the summer of 2004, he headed underground to affix to gritty subway walls brilliant clusters of neon green and orange that waved like exotic flowers or sea creatures when trains whizzed past. Hackenwerth waited unnoticed for the platform to fill and watched as people stopped, riders snapped photos, and would-be vandals left the balloons unpopped. The phantasmagoric creations remained until deflating – perhaps a month, as long as a typical gallery show.
Within a year of his impromptu subterranean art exhibition, Hackenwerth’s balloon sculptures hovered over crowds at galleries and art fairs. And as the size of the spaces grew ever grander, so did his virtuosity. He developed a knitting technique to link an almost infinite number of balloons. Working with a hundred or so, he fashioned wearable art resembling griffins and sea anemones. Weaving several thousand, he suspended a giant cantilevered mobile from the ceiling of the Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis Theater for performances of Peter and the Wolf.
Each sculpture begins as a sketch based on an organic, bulbous shape Hackenwerth has drawn since childhood. “Everything on the planet evolves from this form in some way,” he says. “It comes down to the arc that my wrist makes when I draw; the curve of that line is universal.”
By the time Hackenwerth is constructing on-site, he has already spent hours, eyes closed, ruminating on the space, often beginning with photos or video, although he prefers contemplating in situ. The construction process demands strenuous crawling and bending, not to mention lugging 80-pound boxes of deflated latex. He also hauls a balloon-inflating machine, although he insists human lungs are more efficient. The machine “can’t blow up the skinny balloons, so if I want a hundred on the spot I do it with my face. It’s sheer determination.”
The physical demands keep Hackenwerth surprisingly fit; strangers occasionally mistake him for soccer superstar David Beckham. He even has his own “pre-game” ritual, donning protective glasses, inserting earplugs (three out of every 100 balloons pop spontaneously), wrapping a bandanna around his head and silk tape around his fingers. “You twist a thousand balloons, after an hour the latex will wear the skin off your fingertips.”
In June, a conference called PopTech invited Hackenwerth to Iceland, a country in economic crisis, asking him to speak about resilience – a quality both nations and artists need to survive. “Art is similar to flowers, which bloom in the most inhospitable places and attract other life forms that didn’t exist there before,” he says.
“Artists often have no money and work under tough conditions and yet help life flourish – look how artists changed Soho or Chelsea. How long will it be before they transform Detroit into somewhere amazing – with ordinary materials and connectedness?”
In the Studio with Jason Hackenwerth
“My first and most important tool is my body. Making this work is strenuous. It takes endurance. I try to meditate and stretch daily, and exercise regularly. I find this helps my mind make the transition from thinking to allowing. ... Making the latex sculptures [requires] a variety of different machines and pumps to inflate balloons depending on the balloons I’ll be using. I also use safety gear [including] safety glasses if I am inflating with my mouth. ... I have incurred and successfully deflected some eye injuries. Art is hard!”