In the hands of Jason Hackenwerth, balloons become car-sized anemones and quivering beasts. They become deep sea insectoid monuments in museums and exhibitions; they become pulsating and head-turning curiosities in public. Hackenwerth’s work shows up everywhere from the New Museum to TED to the Guggenheim to Poptech. And that’s where I caught up with this mad balloon artist of the future, at the annual PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.
This year’s theme was ‘resilience,’ and the curators asked Hackenwerth to create a new piece for the event. He obliged with ‘Bang Bang Boom,’ a work whose fleshy follicled tubes descended from giant booms in the trees. We talked about building a career out of balloons that look like alien organs from beyond.
Motherboard: So, why the balloon?
Jason Hackenwerth: Well, one of the things about balloons is that they are very compelling. Everyone's attracted to balloons. Your hair is attracted—when I work on balloons in the studio everything wants to attract to them, they have so much static attraction. On some level they have that effect on people, the way that they are compelled. When I use them, they are warm and inviting and people want to imagine themselves in there. And so if I can capture people's imagination for just long enough and just stop them for a minute from the daily routine and just think about nothing except for the potential for discovery.
You can see how jarring and stimulating and otherworldly they can be; alien is probably the word that jumps out the most. Where do they come from?
I think it's a sketching process, and imagining the spaces that are around, and what kinds of forms might activate them in a way that will be compelling to us as organic beings ourselves. And so they have to have a certain scale in response to the surroundings and effect to the viewers. So the first thing is that we have to realize that those are massive. [He points to the amoeba-like balloon sculpture in the trees, where he has installed his piece for Poptech:]
So that's one of the considerations — think of scale and space. And then I just try and go someplace inside my mind and imagine them. And then some sketching; the arch of my wrist creates a very organic line, a curve that we see in nature everywhere, we see it repeating in our shoulders—you know, artists through every age have used this arch.
This spiral that we can see everything repeating. This is created with a kind of geometry called hyperbolic, which is how shells make their shells. So so many things in our natural world manifest in this way.
These kind of triangles form until they become tube worms; they become life forms in the ocean, insects, crustaceans, things like that. So the process has this organic feel, but I think all my work does.
I use the plastic to transport them. The plastic itself is quite wonderful. I recently taped it to the floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum in their ancient tapestry gallery, and then put fans on them with lights illuminating them. Common material with construction lights we rented for the day. And they illuminated and filled up with air and they were a labyrinth of glowing caverns that were just amazing and they were billowing like seaweed and it sounded like a rainstorm. It's wonderful.
Another one I'm doing next is at the Weisman Art Museum; creating a huge sculpture that is reminiscent of maybe a whale skeleton, but it is a giant piece that rocks on the floor. It's 28 feet and it's assembled from pieces that we cut from sheets of plywood put together in a way like one of those puzzles, but much bigger. All the embellishment is going to be remarkable.
You keep saying 'organic', and your work definitely exudes that quality. Do you think of them like that; like your external organs?
Sometimes. I did this show once that was called 'Cochleapods'. And the inspiration was looking to the inner ear shape, and to the shape of the stomach. Also the shape of a plant called the pitcher plant, which is a little bulb which insects slip inside and the plant dissolves and eats them. It’s like a venus fly trap kind but it's a big bulb that hangs there. And it has a volume and particular shape that is only in nature, its just like an insect body; there’s a certain volume and contour and we find it repeating everywhere in bodies and everything that we see, and so I just kind of exploit that and let your imagination do the rest of the work.
Some of the elements obviously they're radically different – [Another guy walks up, a bus driver named Joe, and he’s oblivious to the fact that there’s an interview in progress. He wants to know what the things in the trees are; everyone on his bus wants to know. Joe takes over, and does a better job wrapping up the interview than I would’ve. Thanks, Joe.]
I was just explaining that they're really whatever you can imagine them to be. We just use this process to create these forms, and I made these sketches so that they would fit on this boom nice and tight and we could still move the booms around. So my goals were to use color and engage people's imaginations and to get people to stop and ask questions. You get to decide what they are, pal.
Joe: This is kind of like a jellyfish. They look like some kind of a serpent, some serpent jelly fish thing
Jason: So we're getting more organic. I thought you said, something else …
Joe: Maybe even, a particular organ I could draw a comparison to … [at this point, he is almost certainly euphemistically referring to a vagina.]
Jason: You can make up whatever colorful story you like.
See more of Jason’s work at his website