Blow up: Balloon art in Catskill

404 Main Street installation of AVIARY (reimagined), temporary latex balloon installation by Jason Hackenwerth (photo by Kyle Adams)

What happens to art when it has served its function? Such questions aren’t answered much, because most artifacts of our culture still carry with them a heavy veneer of immortality, from the archival materials used to ensure timelessness to the protections granted these objects, as if holy relics. However, there are and always have been those who also cherish the leftovers from theatrical productions, performance art and happenings; as well as the changes in attitude being brought to us all by the late great John Cage’s fascination with indeterminacy, or Marina Abramovic’s championing of all that comes from endurance-art experiences.

Many of today’s most memorable artists work in these areas, where permanence and impermanence collide. Think of Warhol’s proverbial (and partly apocryphal) 15 minutes of fame; Robert Smithson; Damien Hirst’s animal bodies suspended in formaldehyde; Carolee Schneemann’s entire oeuvre; Andy Goldsworthy. And now there are Jason Heckenwerth’s balloon sculptures – although, given all the hoopla surrounding what has happened to one of the latter’s works in a second life now underway in Catskill, we may be entering a whole new era of art attitudes, including its eventual reuse in new formats.

Here’s what’s happening, and how it touches on us here in the Almanac reading area, as well as on arts attitudes: Hackenwerth exploded on the scene making ever-larger balloon sculptures about a decade ago, filling art fairs, festivals and many of the world’s largest cultural institutions with his short-lived fantasias that last anywhere from a few weeks to a year. This winter he was commissioned to create something for the 30th anniversary gala for the Works & Process Department at the Guggenheim Museum in New York – to show one night only, April 2, and then be popped.

Duke Dang, who keeps a second home in Catskill and was working with Heckenwerth at the Guggenheim, offered the balloon sculpture to his new hometown’s enterprising Masters on Main Street project, which had been staging a variety of art shows along the town’s Main Street over the past few years as a means of drawing new economic development energy to the community – and succeeding. So MoMS director Fawn Potash (my wife, for sake of disclosure) said “Sure,” even though there was no huge space in which to show the 40-foot-tall sculpture, aviary-shaped in its original form.

At that point, an entire town of art-lovers shifted into high gear for what became a mass of opening events for Heckenwerth’s magnum opus last weekend and more happenings leading up to several finales over the early-May Cinco de Mayo weekend. First, some donors came forth to rent two 30-foot trucks and a crew of drivers and handlers to coax the dismantled balloon behemoth out of the Guggenheim in the wee hours of April 3 for the drive upstate. There, starting at 4:30 a.m., Potash and a growing host of community volunteers unloaded the 6,000-plus balloons into a Main Street storefront and in-process new theater space for reconfiguring (and much retwisting) under the guidance of Heckenwerth’s studio assistants, brought up April 4 for a massive elementary school assembly where nearly 400 kids created their own thousand-balloon sculpture now hanging in their cafeteria/gym.

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