Doug Aitken’s Mesmeric, Metallic, Hot-Air Balloon Odyssey

Published July 17, 2019

Image courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop and The Trustees.

Martha’s Vineyard might be best known as the summer vacation playground for the Kennedys and for the sharks of Jaws (the Vineyard is the real-life backdrop of Amity Island). But on the weekend of July 12, a different sort of American spectacle took place in the form of a silver Mylar hot-air balloon launched by the LA-based artist Doug Aitken. The mesmeric airborne sculpture will journey across the state of Massachusetts this month, stopping at five conversation sites under the care of the Trustees organization and ending in the Berkshire Mountains at the gilded-era home of Naumkeag. At each pit stop, Aitken has planned a roster of musicians, artists, environmentalists, architects, and philosophers to speak, prophesize, and perform. An ambitious roving multi-element of art productions is not unfamiliar territory for Aitken, who has, in the recent past, created underwater sculptures off the Catalina Islands that required scuba gear to view, packed a motley crew of troubadour talents on a train that crossed America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and erected an entirely mirrored house in such diverse ecosystems as the California desert and the Swiss Alps

Image courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop and The Trustees.

The 100-foot balloon, which took three years to develop as part of the New Horizon artist series, lifted off from a former duck-hunting club that is now eternally protected beachfront property. The reflective material of the balloon mimics Aitken’s house sculptures in that it, too, hangs in a state of perpetual transition. Its surface is shaped and colored by the physical environment in which it drifts. “I wanted to make a de-material artwork,” Aitken says. “A sculpture in constant change, even one as unpredictable as this balloon. It depends so much on the whims of Mother Nature.” The balloon’s gondola, usually constructed out of wicker, was designed by the artist in Fiberglass, which he perceives as a “nomadic studio.” 

Experiencing this work doesn’t require worming your way on board the ship; as everyone knows, the pleasure of a hot-air balloon is the sudden rupture of this strange object on the horizon, floating on the periphery, dangling dangerously over the planet. That joy will be experienced by Massachusetts residents from East to West—a progressive people, judging by their recently instituted lax pot laws. 

The 20th century art world was largely suspicious of public art. If one of the main thrusts so far in this century is a breakdown of public and private and a rebuff of elite connoisseurship for inclusion and democracy, Aitken is one of the key figures of this brave new art world. “I’m not interested in static art,” he says. “I want journeys.”