A cool breeze sweeps in off the Atlantic Ocean, rustling the grassy coastline of Long Point Wildlife Refuge on Martha’s Vineyard’s south shore. It’s 7 a.m. and a crowd has begun forming in anticipation: Will this be the gust that sets artist Doug Aitken’s mirrored hot air balloon, a traveling art installation, into flight?
Unfortunately, so far Mother Nature hasn’t been cooperative, blowing gusts off the coastline that inflate the oversized hot air balloon, which is made of nylon coated in a layer of highly reflective mylar, only for it to deflate a few minutes later. But Aitken doesn’t appear to be the least bit perturbed. He knew from the moment he came up with the concept to create a giant roving sculpture that he would be at nature’s mercy, and he’s up to the challenge.
It all began when The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit land conservation and historic preservation organization in Massachusetts, tasked Boston-based independent curator Pedro Alonzo to find an artist.
"I started hanging out by the dunes over here between the lagoon and the ocean and thinking, oh my God, what am I going to do here?" Alonzo says. "I was thinking about who I could bring here who could have an impact. This is not any easy place [to create an installation]. But I've been wanting to work with [artist Doug Aitken] for 20 years."
So Alonzo approached the L.A.-based multimedia artist and filmmaker to create an installation for The Trustees' Art & the Landscape public art series. Rather than choose one site out of the 117 sprinkled throughout Massachusetts that are in The Trustees’ care, they picked several, including the 632-acre refuge where the balloon kicked off its multi-week journey this past weekend.
“I wanted to [create an installation] that wasn’t static or fixed, but could change locations while also transforming itself [along the way],” Aitken says. “It became a mental exercise for me on how we could break stasis and have flow, and then I came up with the idea of making an artwork that could fly and would make the journey part of the narrative.”
The result is New Horizon, a 100-foot-tall nomadic art piece that is traversing the state and making pit stops at Trustees properties in Greater Boston and the Berkshires now through July 28. At each location, it will be tethered and serve as a backdrop for a lineup of concerts; discussions about timely topics such climate change, creativity and the economy; and other curated events. The idea comes as an evolution to another project Aitken did in 2017 called Mirage, a mirror-paneled home nestled in the California desert.
“This project in general is a little bit like a lighthouse,” says Aitken. “We're creating both a beacon of light where people can come and share, but we can also project these stories and narratives to an audience.”
Together Aitken and Alonzo began researching hot air balloons and the arduous task of building one that would be mirrored to capture the landscape. The pair became immersed in New Mexico’s popular ballooning subculture, home of the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, and Aitken discussed the feasibility of the project with an expert at NASA, focusing specifically on materials and structure. In addition, multiple test flights were done leading up to the project's completion to ensure its flyability and safety.
“It was something that we built from the ground up,” Aitken says. “The gondola is made from scratch and was made to serve as a kind of nomadic studio that a musician could use to improvise sound while flying over the landscape or a poet could use to recite spoken word.”
Within the gondola, there are jacks for microphones and other equipment to be plugged in should performers want to use the balloon.
But despite the many months of planning, Aitken is well aware of the unpredictable nature of hot air balloon flight. If there’s little to no wind on any given day or the surrounding air temperature becomes too warm, there's no choice but to ground the installation for the day, which was the case for the morning flight at the coastal refuge. But the fickle nature of the project is also what keeps Aitken inspired—tomorrow is one more opportunity to take flight.
Here is a full schedule and ticket information for the upcoming New Horizon events.