Monday, March 24, 2014

It's the Heaviest Thing Which Lifts You Highest

Lift by Leslie Tharp in Scottsdale Civic Center Bell Tower

The first thing that came to mind when I saw this work was the brothers Montgolfier with their first hot air balloons in 1783 in France. What brave fools, to fill a balloon with hot air, and to then enter a small platform beneath it and ride it into the sky. Next I thought of the Siege of Paris (1870–71), in which hot air balloons were used to transport mail and carrier pigeons out of the beleaguered city, with return mail being sent back on microfilm carried by the carrier pigeons. Have a look at this terrific historic poster detailing the flights for a quick sample of who what where. 

Click for much bigger and informative version

Last thing I thought of was a vague memory that ascending in balloons gave one or more Impressionist painters a new perspective on everything, which took their work in new directions. I couldn't recall specifics and vowed to look that up as soon as I got home from my bike ride, to see if some intriguing / relevant art tie-in arose there.

The baskets are these lovely powder-coated woven steel simulacra of wicker

But before I could get to the Impressionists' history, which I'm sure would have been riveting reading and even more compelling blogging, I read the artist's Kickstarter and also her blog on the work that went into Lift, and found further research mostly unnecessary. On the Kickstarter page, while describing what the hot air balloon means to her, she wrote, "With art, I can fly. This sounds plain, but sometimes truth is simple. My ideas carry me into the sky. Sharing my vision with you carries me higher." Clicking on those two links is an excellent opportunity to get some understanding of what's behind these metal hot air balloons.

What stuck with me was her focus on inspiration. She wrote that "For me the symbol of a hot air balloon represents hope and opportunity and has become an important icon of inspiration in my work over the last few years...For me, Lift symbolizes the motivation to follow my dreams and embrace adventure!" 

I have to believe that the inspiration from them has something to do with the lightness of the balloon-in-flight, its soaring and roaring that, when the burner turns off and the great bulbous colorful thing just hangs there in the air floating, appears dream-like, surreal yet hyper-real. I've been to a few mass liftofts, at Indianola in Iowa, and also at the Thunderbird Balloon Classic in Arizona. So they shouldn't appear so strange when I see them floating in a clear blue sky, giant colorful envelopes of air above a basket with tiny people suspended, but they do, every time. So it was very interesting to me that Leslie Tharp chose steel as her medium, and that it required blacksmith techniques to fabricate these symbols of balloons which themselves are symbols of hope, dreams, and adventure. The making-of is always harder, and probably deeper, than it might seem from a distance. I do I want to braze up a bicycle frame some day. But I digress.

Art often is symbols of symbols, which in making and fabrication distill out the most significant elements of the original into the work product, amplifying or distorting them for effect, calling them to attention, asking the viewer to consider what-if, or what's-this, or in their like-it-but-not-it representations reaching under our common perceiving machinery, blowing right past it, peeling back notions and preconceptions, in that quixotic but sometimes effective attempt to get to what might be beneath. Or in this case, above. Taking us there below minimalist steel hoops while perched on magnificently solid steel baskets.

Looking up, your lifters are farther than they would be, and you can't reach these, but you can try

While reading about hot air balloons to prepare for my visit to this installation, I learned something incredible about them having to do with their total mass and the relative mass of their components. According to the table on Wikipedia

the envelope weighs in at a measly 250 pounds, the wicker basket only 140 pounds, even five passengers @150 pounds only add up to 750 lbs. It was that last line in the chart that caught my attention, and spun me around a little bit: the component of a hot air balloon system which has the greatest mass, by a long shot, is the hot air. 

Look, 100,000 cubic feet of hot air (dry air heated to 210 °F (99 °C)) has a mass for let's call it 2700kg or 5900lbs, which is about 3/4 of the total of the whole thing. It's apparent weight in cooler air, due to air displacement, is a different matter, of course, the one which makes it rise. But there's enough delightfully unexpected factual information in that chart to get a new understanding of what it takes to go UP: apparently, to lift 750lbs of human requires 100,000 cubic feet of pretty hot air with a mass of about three tons.

These red steel hoops don't hold air. In fact, if you sit here on a windy day you might hear the wind sing through them. As I was sitting there thinking that, I also thought, symbols of symbols, and what inspires, what lifts me? You can take those ideas apart, spread them across a landscape of rolling fields seen from above, and be certain of one thing, whatever the specific answer might be: it's often the heaviest thing which ends up lifting you the highest. Tie that message to a carrier pigeon you brought with you on the flight, and send it back to the beleaguered city it calls home. The groundlings may need to hear it.



  1. Your review of your experience with Lift is thorough and poetic and it's made my day to read it. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Leslie, I am looking forward to stopping by Lift once in a while over the next few weeks to see what these thoughts become after they float around my brain awhile. I know a great place to sit a moment to think.

  2. An interesting perspective, got me googling. There was a chap called Nadar who was around at the same time as the impressionists who did some balloon photography, also modern day impressionst Leonid Afremov has a great balloon piece.

    1. Thank you Andy, I will also read about Nadar and Afremov. The sky is still a new frontier for us, and the perspective gained by being up there must only be in the early stages of penetrating our thoughts and dreams. Flying must rank as a longstanding aspiration only recently achieved. Its full import we have yet to really grasp, I imagine, with our artists catching glimpses of meaning that I squint at from the cramped compartment of my daily life.


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