What Are All Those Balloons at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater?

Classic Arts Features   What Are All Those Balloons at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater?
As part of New York City Ballet’s Art Series, visual artist Jihan Zencirili turns a party favor into an artistic adventure.
Jihan Zencirli
Jihan Zencirli Photos © Jessica Nicole Collins and courtesy Jihan Zencirli

Amidst the bustle of Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, Jihan Zencirli sits under a canopy of 50 silver balloons she playfully calls “The Planets,” with a nod to Gustav Holst’s beloved symphonic suite, and talks about the ephemeral quality of her work. Like many contemporary artists, Zencirli’s specialty is installations, though she also makes massive sculptures. But unlike artists who create such works from paint, wood, or clay, Zencirli’s chosen medium is balloons.

Part of the magic inherent in her joyful work is its fleeting nature. As Zencirli explains, “Balloons are not meant to last forever; they vanish.” (Her balloons are made from post-consumer waste plastic and latex, which comes from rubber trees and eventually decomposes.) “So,” she continues, “rooted in my work is this reminder that you will only have this experience at this particular time. You’re here, you’re seeing it, you’re alive.”

Jihan Zencirli at work in Los Angeles.
Jihan Zencirli at work in Los Angeles.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to make the connection between the transitory quality of Zencirli’s work and dance. Which brings us to New York City Ballet’s Art Series: the annual pop-up art installation, now in its sixth year, that’s become a Winter Season tradition. As this year’s featured artist, Zencirli, a.k.a. Geronimo (the name riffs on paratroopers and her nickname, Jihanimo), has set tens of thousands of balloons, measuring from ten inches to ten feet, throughout the David H. Koch Theater. They scale the building’s exterior and spill into the Lincoln Center plaza. You may even spot them around town, a colorful off-campus salute to NYCB. And because even professionally inflated balloons constantly change their shape and pop spontaneously, her creations will look different if you attend the ballet more than once this Winter Season.

“As the balloons biodegrade, the way they change, that transition from ripe perfection to decomposing fragments is part of their complexity,” she says. “I’m offering an experience to reconsider the ideal aesthetic and create a taste for imperfection and spontaneous shape-shifting.

Zencirli’s work has taken her all over the world, accompanied by her “troopers,” her team of artists, many of them dancers. As an artist who has built balloon installations large and small, making art for NYCB’s home base posed challenges, though not unlike her previous work. Yes, the setting sprawls, but she’s tackled big before, from a private Kanye West concert in Los Angeles to a massive installation that filled the cantilevered mid-century David and Gladys Wright House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Phoenix, Arizona, last June.

Making art for building exteriors is nothing new, either, as seen by her joyfully ballooned bodegas and underpasses—Zencirli often focuses on forgotten buildings, to give a moment of surprise to a space that might appear ordinary—and her red hot inflatables perched on the iconic white Broad Museum in L.A.

An installation at the David and Gladys Wright House.
An installation at the David and Gladys Wright House.

What’s different this time is the project’s duration, for the six-week winter season. And with 200,000 balloons, the NYCB project is her biggest project to date. To create her pieces, Zercirli is working with balloon artisans in Japan, who make them by hand and have passed down their craft for generations, as well as an American company that has been part of the industry for a century.

Her plan for Art Series calls for balloons in a variety of locations, making the most of the building’s multiple levels and look-out points. Expect the Promenade to receive special attention. And watch for changes that go beyond the shape-shifting of the balloons as the season progresses.

At the heart of her work is the reimagining of found objects—the day-to-day props of life—as art. Zencirli credits her creative mentors, her late great-grandparents, who instilled in her the interest and imagination to create with the simplest tools at her disposal and give those materials second, third, fourth lives. She hopes that her work inspires others to make art that is meaningful and beautiful, even perhaps without the typical tools of an artist.

For Geronimo, the idea originated serendipitously, when she wanted an alternative to flowers for a friend’s birthday celebration at a restaurant. From her job as creative director at a children’s education company, she had a stash of balloons just waiting to be used. Embellishing the birthday balloon with a fanciful tail, she was astonished by the attention it attracted. She began surprising friends with enormous be-tailed balloons as gifts.

The positive response coincided with a move from her then-home of Seattle to L.A. and the birth of her artistry and a business. Zencirli was soon known for zipping around in a vintage blue VW Squareback, hand-delivering one or two enormous balloons flaunting whimsical, one-of-a-kind kite tails for parties and special occasions. Magazines and influential websites took notice, and as social media use exploded, photos of Geronimo’s upbeat balloons went viral. As clients asked for increasingly extravagant arrangements, Zencirli upped her game, embracing installations and training her “troopers” in the fine points of inflating balloons with air, not helium, and covering the wall of a building with balloons in a day.

An installation at the Squarespace headquarters in New York City for NYC Pride 2017.
An installation at the Squarespace headquarters in New York City for NYC Pride 2017.

To prepare for NYCB’s Art Series, Zencirli visited the David H. Koch Theater multiple times, sitting for hours at a time on the Promenade to take in the space. She watching how light danced throughout the building as day moved into night and how people used the space during a performance. “As in all my work, it’s important to enhance the beautiful things that exist in this unique space,” she says. Her work is often inspired by the idea of the golden hour, or the particular way sunlight shifts in the sky just after sunrise or before sunset, and the heightened feeling that it evokes. “The beautiful cascade of light in the theatre, the lightness—and the darkness and shadows that confront it—create this beautiful human experience. My goal is to replicate that.”

The 2018 Art Series installation will be displayed during New York City Ballet’s Winter Season through March 4. NYCB will also host free, open hours for the general public to view the exhibition February 17 to 25. See nycballet.com/artseries for more details.

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