A riot of color, whimsical decorations, and sonorous sounds of amazed laughter fill the air as people freeze in astonishment watching thousands of iridescent balloons gracefully floating above their heads. This describes a new David H. Koch Theater’s exhibition created by Turkish American pop-up artist Jihan Zencirli aka Geronimo for the NYCB Art Series 2018 to traditionally celebrate a beginning of the Winter Season. The installation, which is open from January through February and featuring 200,000 of hot-air biodegradable balloons up to 10 feet in size, has managed to impress with its uniqueness even the most refined taste of New York public, who are used to all kinds of cultural spectacles. As Geoffrey Thomas, artist, says: “Experiencing the Geronimo balloon exhibition is magical as if I were shrunken down to a small size and floated in a saturated, buoyant, saccharine kaleidoscope”. Mr. Thomas stands in a bustling crowd of other visitors with their faces full of rhapsodic attention. He is just one of the many fascinated by the balloon magic of the Geronimo. Hilary B., Doctorate of Physical Therapy Student expressively summarizes the overall vibe: “It is absolutely incredible. It is like a surprise birthday party for me! It just has filled me with happiness, joy, and a sense of light hearted buoyancy”.
However, it is not the aesthetic beauty of Zencirli’s design per se that is so extraordinary, but rather it is artist’s outstanding ability to transform entertaining and childish objects into a new medium of political story-telling that renders her work in truth sui generis. Brilliantly enough, Zencirli plays with the joyful sentimentality of form and the mesmerizing bright colors to maximize the emotional response of the audience and simultaneously uses color and composition to create a symbolic reference to the various social issues, immediately redirecting the freshly evoked feelings in the service of civic consciousness.
First of all, the installation addresses a problem of ever-growing social insecurity as people are becoming increasingly concerned with their democratic future and domestic stability. As the American Psychological Organization has reported in 2017, 59 % of the American population suffers from extreme political anxiety, checking their news feed multiple times per day and perceiving the activity of Trump administration as the most degrading moment in the US history. As their reality is soaked with political conflicts and undisguised propaganda, people see the Geronimo exhibition as a magic opportunity to trade all those messy entanglements and no-exit crises for a temporary relief in a tranquil artsy oasis full of air and dreaminess. The timely interference of this injection of ‘optimism’ is clearly expressed by Madeleine Masinsin, USCA student: “Because our nation, and the world for that matter, are at such a pivotal point in human history, the art displayed was able to offer an escape for many, including myself. For a few hours, those in attendance could focus and process the colors and visuals, rather than the state of our country”.
There has always been a wide gap between the ordinary folks working long hours to enjoy the most moderate pleasures and the representatives of the elite proudly flaunting their fat paychecks in a pointedly capitalist America yet it is on the shiny avenues of New York where it is the most evident. As people say: if you move to the City, you move into a working class. In this context, the Geronimo exhibition’s entrance fee of $30 which covers both the installation and the 3 hours long NYCB performances sounds as unbelievable as much it is promising. It is hard to imagine what can better smooth the rough edges of cross-class animosity than a joint observance of artistic beauty, a happy mixture of students in shabby sneakers and elegant ladies floodlit by their diamonds jumping around the colorful balls and taking jolly selfies. “I think it promotes optimism in the sense that it shows that the performing arts at a place like the Lincoln center can be for anyone and the art series makes it very accessible for all incomes”, says Connie Chen, a marketing worker.
The mere fact of Jihan being the first female artist to participate in the Art Series is quite auspicious, particularly in light of the ongoing media storm of #MeToo and recent forced retirement of the NYCB ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, accused of sexually abusing his ballerinas. “I must applaud NYCB for instating Zencirli as the first female artist for the series”, says Madeleine. “The times are changing and I am glad the company is keeping up with them”. The sight of balloons so different in their size and location but so similar in their delicate charm is reminiscent of another Insta-activist movement, the one of a body positivity. While her balloons ‘strive’ to showcase the reasonability of self-appreciation regardless of the inches on the waist, Zencirli explains the nuances of the metaphorical language behind. “As the balloons biodegrade, the way they change, that transition from ripe perfection to decomposition fragments is part of their complexity”, she says. “I am offering an experience to reconsider the ideal aesthetic and create a taste for imperfection”.
Sparkly pink, powder blue, searing black, and snow-white – all the balloons are presented in the same celebrating manner, signifying harmony and calling for a peaceful co-existence and mutual tolerance. Despite being one of the most liberal communities in the world, the American society still struggles to fully ostracize the ugly beast of racism and homophobia from its public sphere and instead often judges people’s merit by the shade of their skin or orthodoxy of their sexual preferences. The installation’s bright appearance, so welcoming of visual diversity, reads as a call to a collective counteraction against this discrimination. As Teresa Marieec, Psychology Major at Pace University says: “Thinking of the rainbow colors being a representation of the LGBTQIA community, I do believe that the grandiose size of the sculptures are symbolic of how great the need for inclusion and provisions for marginalized people is in our current society”.
As far as the issue of racism is concerned, the contextual framework of the exhibition is particularly relevant: despite remarkable improvement overall, the problem of color-based underrepresentation in the American ballet has not been effectively addressed. This has caused the discriminated dancers to speak out and enflamed debates in the media but failed to enforce any significant change. A somewhat clandestine nature of this problem is emphasized by Misty Copeland, the first African-American Principal of American Ballet Theater, in her interview for the Time Magazine: “The one difference is that the world outside ballet has changed. We won’t be told to leave the company because our safety is at risk, but I had a similar experience being told to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit in with the rest of the company. I have a light complexion, but darker dancers have experienced much worse”.
Unfortunately, the NYCB is not an exclusion: out of the sixty dancers participating in the Art Series Performace on the February, 2nd, only seven were black, from which just two were women. As Sophia Garcia, the New School Free Press reporter, comments on the data behind such tendency: “Currently, the company boasts only about 15 dancers of color out of their 92-person company. That’s four principal dancers of color, out of 24; two soloists of color out of 18; and nine corps members of color out of 50”. As sad as this sounds, the concept of beauty still appears to be quite tangled with the concept of whiteness, being a kind of entrance ticket in the breathtaking world of graceful pirouettes and magic costumes. Light skin is a genetic ‘benefit’ which can never be obtained or counteracted by the diligent training or innate talent.
“I can see this contrast you are talking about”, says Irene Seo, the NYU Student. “The performance is brilliant as always, but there are no Asian-Americans there or in the City Ballet, not a single one. Only balloons can have a yellow skin”. In this light, the social symbolism of the Geronimo exhibition can, perhaps without an explicit intention of the artist, serve as a valuable reminder that there are deep and lasting wounds left by this possibly non-deliberate but fairly frequent demonstration of racial monopoly on the right to be thin, fragile and dancing on the pointe shoes. There can hardly a more compelling evidence of the exhibition’s social utility than those examples of people’s consciousness being triggered precisely as a reaction to the harmonic coherence of the balloons, which is so radically different from the disparities of the daily life.
Some critics might say that the Geronimo exhibition might not be sophisticated, enthralling, spectacular but what it also intentionally lacks is any will to political manipulation. Jihan Zincirli neither seeks public leverage nor does she want to impose her subjective beliefs. Zincirli strives to accomplish a far more noble task. She tries to cure ignorance with art, making people thoughtful by being heartful. And this alone is worth a stand-up applause.