There's now a sculpture made out of 20,000 balloons in The Dubai Mall

The red, orange and yellow work is around 18 metres tall and weighs 30 kilograms-or-so and hangs across three storeys of the mall

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 28 JANUARY 2018. Jason Heckenworth’s new large scale installation made out of 50 000 ballons inside Dubai Mall. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nyree Mcfarlane. Section: National.
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It’s not often we see something so unusual that we pause, look up from busy our lives (and our smartphones) and just observe.

But that is exactly what experimental artist Jason Hackenwerth hopes to achieve with his new sculpture that hangs across three storeys of The Dubai Mall, slowly spinning in place, sitting above the entrance to the mall’s Souk. The red, orange and yellow work is around 18 metres tall, weighs 30 kilograms-or-so and is made up of up to 20,000 balloons. Yes, standard latex balloons.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 28 JANUARY 2018. Jason Heckenworth with his new large scale installation made out of 50 000 ballons inside Dubai Mall. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Nyree Mcfarlane. Section: National.

The Florida-based artist flew into Dubai with balloons in his suitcases to both build and install the temporary artwork, a process that took just more than a week (the pre-build planning can be done anywhere, but is meticulous and involves working out the exact length of each balloon and section).

“We get into almost like a trance,” he says, of the build with his team, who help with everything from blowing up the balloons to turning the sculpture as it’s being built. “We just get really into it, and the hours fly by. We sweat and we dance around and we try to keep moving.”

The resulting work should be in place until the end of February, as the balloons will start to very-slowly deflate after about 60 days. Hackenwerth says this piece is designed to last for 90 days, after which it will be popped and disposed of.

Hackenwerth decided to work with balloons as a medium precisely because of the childlike wonderment they bring out in us.

“There are a lot of people who are very afraid of art, and this is sort of a gateway. It’s accessible. People won’t put their guard up, because, even if it’s something strange, there’s something recognisable about balloons.”

His first balloon works were smaller-scale pieces he placed around New York’s subways. “I was interested in seeing if I could get people’s attention and make them smile,” he says. “The subways are so bleak, and people are on a sort of ‘zombie walk’ to work. So, I just started sticking the [balloon pieces] around to see what people would do, and people went crazy with their cameras.”

Hackenwerth realised if he could interrupt the routine of a hardened Manhattan commuter, he was onto something extraordinary. “Almost all people on Earth are completely consumed in compulsive thought,” he explains. “What I hope is that, when people encounter my work, they stop in their tracks, and all that compulsive thinking immediately stops, and all that’s left is the raw experience between them as a viewer and the object that they’ve never seen anything like before.”

Hackenwerth explains that children tend to let their imaginations run more freely when they see his works – young minds will just shout out, “it’s a platypus”, while adults will always ask others what it is. But if you see nothing in particular when you stare at the sculpture in the mall, that’s also OK: “The idea is to keep it ambiguous so that it doesn’t have to be one thing or another. It can be whatever you want it to be, and in that way, it’s for everyone.”

The Dubai Mall sculpture is called Skyward and is an "expression of our urgent dreams to be ever more grand in our endeavours", he explains. That makes it aptly site-specific in Dubai, then, especially where it sits in Downtown Dubai, just under the Burj Khalifa.

When I ask Hackenwerth if he would like to install in other sites around the UAE he says he spends most of his time “dreaming about emails from people with giant spaces”. The only requirement is the sites are indoors (20,000 balloons wouldn’t fare well in the midday UAE sun).

In fact, this isn't the first piece Hackenwerth has installed in the UAE, but it is the first the wider public will see: he tells us he created a piece for a science fair in Abu Dhabi a few years ago, but, after floods and thunderstorms, the tented event was cancelled, and his work was never put on show (it was titled Corona).

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Freak weather conditions aside, individual balloons do sometimes pop once the sculpture is hung. 

“I think that is in keeping with what the work teaches. Just to let go. Just to let it be,” he says.

But he does make sure that people can’t pop them (it would just be too tempting). His measurement for how high his sculptures hang? “So that a child sitting on a tall man’s shoulders couldn’t reach up and pop them.”

Skyward is on show at The Dubai Mall (Souk entrance, near Galleries Lafayette) until the end of February