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Why Does Phoenix Art Museum Have A Room Full Of Balloons?

By Annika Cline
Published: Friday, November 4, 2016 - 4:40pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Laura Wenzel (right) stands in the 'Half the air in a given space' exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The Phoenix Art Museum has almost 2,000 balloons packed into one of their galleries.

If you close your eyes, it sounds a little like soft rain and distant thunder. But then there’s that tell-tale squeak. If you’re claustrophobic, you probably shouldn’t go in there. 

I was surrounded on all sides and overhead by white balloons bigger than basketballs. Laura Wenzel, registrar with the Phoenix Art Museum, waded through the room with me. Her tip: bop the balloons up toward the ceiling to make space to walk.

“What happens if a balloon pops?” I asked.

“We will keep track of that and then we can replenish them as needed,” Wenzel said.

And that’s important because this isn’t just a room full of balloons. It’s a work of art.

“And it’s basically an instructional artwork,” Gilbert Vicario said.

He curated this piece from British artist and musician, Martin Creed.

“So this piece is instructed by the artist that they be white balloons, and that they be 24 inches in diameter,” Vicario said.

There are 1,728 balloons, to be exact. They blew them up with automated machines, tied them up and threw them into the room. It’s titled "Half the air in a given space" - and that’s exactly what the balloons take up in this room.

“I had to really sell everyone on this,” Vicario said. “They probably thought I was crazy.”

It was Vicario’s first piece he curated for the museum. They won’t disclose the price tag for the acquisition, but the estimate for the cost of materials is about $5,000. Was it worth it? Well, Creed definitely has some chops, Vicario said.

“And in 2001, he actually won the Turner Prize.”

That’s a huge deal in Britain for visual artists. That piece was titled The lights going on and off." Vicario explained it was an empty gallery room, “in which he basically just told the gallery, turn the lights on and off every 30 seconds. There was nothing else added or taken away from the space.”

Besides the prize, the room drew criticism. The BBC reported a woman entered the room and threw eggs at the wall, declaring the piece wasn’t art. But this doesn’t seem to bother Creed much.

“I’m actually not the person to ask about whether this is art, because it’s not me that decides if something’s art or not, you know?” Creed said in an interview at the Tate gallery in London.

And he’s right — it’s the curators at art museums who decide, like Vicario, who said this is art with a new purpose.

“One of the things that I want to do in Phoenix is to be able to give people a variety of experiences to show that there isn’t one definition of art,” he said.

He compared it to another piece at the museum, the popular LED light installation called "You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies." It’s a similar concept. You walk through a room to experience the art; in that case, a dark room with blinking colored lights.

“You don’t actually have to read a label to understand, just have to do it,” Vicario said. “Your experience of it really is how you understand the piece.”

"Work No. 2497. Half the air in a given space" opens at the Phoenix Art Museum on Friday.

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