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Taking to the skies in a mirrored hot air balloon: artist Doug Aitken is flying high

New Horizon Doug Aitken hot air balloon
New Horizon is the latest sculpture by American artist Doug Aitken: a 100ft high, mirrored hot air balloon

It’s 72 hours to take-off when Doug Aitken telephones from his studio in California. The American artist is preparing for the departure of his latest sculpture – a mirrored hot air balloon that will, from Friday, be floating through the Massachusetts landscape at will. He’s about to get on a plane, he tells me, to meet it in Martha’s Vineyard. He has hardly slept, eager for the journey to begin.

Commissioned by The Trustees, a members organisation that protects more than 100 sites across the state of Massachusetts, New Horizon is part travelling art installation, part happening, part rabble-rouser, designed to provide an entirely different encounter at each of its 16 scheduled pit-stops. 

Along with live music in the balloon’s gondola and light displays on the skin of the balloon itself, the ticketed programme includes conversations on climate change, digital identity and green cities, involving figures such as the architect Norman Foster and NASA designer Scott Bolton (currently overseeing the spacecraft Juno’s mission around Jupiter), in tandem with artists, economists and ecologists.

“I wanted it to have the feel of a turbine of voices, as opposed to a concise, scheduled tour,” says Aitken, who is 51. “In a world that’s so controlled, I was taken with the idea of real-time discovery, something like a pneumatic studio that could land, initiate a conversation and then in a quiet, sublime way, disappear again the following morning.”

'New Horizon is part travelling art installation, part happening, part rabble-rouser'

The sculpture was designed with input from NASA and the ballooning community in New Mexico. At 100ft high, it is twice the size of a standard balloon and its gondola has been specially fitted so that it can function as a music studio. 

The balloon skin, meanwhile, has been given a reflective coating made from Mylar laminate, to prevent it being “too digestible,” explains Aitken.  “If it was too figurative, or a colour that never changed, the viewer would see and consume and it would be over with. Being reflective, it becomes an optical device that allows you to see the world around you in real time – see it half an hour later and the reflection will be entirely different, as if the colour chroma was continually reasserting itself.”

Since the reflective surface will only function during daylight hours, at night the skin transforms into a kinetic light sculpture, whereby lights sewn into the canvas will respond in tandem to either music or the wind.

Musicians who have been commissioned to create pieces for the happenings include the cellist Kelsey Lu and singer Julie Byrne. Aitken has given each an open brief, in order to preserve spontaneity. He also intends to record each event and stream it live, “so that a car sitting in traffic below can pick up in real time what is happening above”.

New Horizon kicks off on Friday, among the sand dunes at Long Point Wildlife Refuge in Martha’s Vineyard. From there the sculpture will travel to the Farm Institute in Edgartown, the Holmes Reservation in Plymouth, the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Castle Hill on the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Field Farm in Williamstown and Naumkeag House and Gardens in Stockbridge. 

Doug Aitken Credit: Ami Sioux

Though each of these sites is fixed, Aitken, who will be among the crew in the balloon as often as he can, has had to relinquish control of its destination. Each flight depends on wind speed, weather and altitude, meaning he has no real idea where it will land. 

“It could be a parking lot, or someone’s garden, but wherever we end up, we can pack the balloon up and transport it to its next scheduled take-off location,” he says.

In many ways, New Horizon is the natural heir to Aitken’s 2013 artwork Station to Station, whereby a train that he turned into a kinetic light sculpture travelled from New York to San Francisco over the course of a month, making 10 stops along the way, each of which hosted its own happening. 

Both works draw deeply on the mythology of the American Road Trip, in the spirit of Kerouac and Steinbeck, where the journey is the destination. In the case of New Horizon, “the journey is connecting space and land, merging art with philosophy, with conversations on society,” Aitken says. “If it can also be something that is continuously changing and presenting different creations and voices – that for me is the ultimate road trip.”

There is a vast difference, though, between a high-speed train and a hot air balloon. “Up there, you’re travelling in a completely friction-free environment,” explains Aitken, who had travelled in a balloon through France prior to making his own version for the New England Trustees. 

“The speed at which you’re moving is the speed of the wind, so no sound is produced. You find yourself in this very surreal situation where it’s so quiet that you can hear people talking to each other on the ground, hundreds of feet below. Somehow you’re more engaged with the present, you’re really looking at what you can see.” 

New Horizon runs Jul 12-28 thetrustees.org/newhorizon

An exhibition of new works by Doug Aitken takes place at Victoria Miro, London, from 2 October to 20 December 2019

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