If you head to Covent Garden this month, it will be hard to miss the work of Charles Pétillon. Hanging through the grand 19th century market building is a giant 54-metre long, 23-metre wide, white cloud of balloons. It is one pop away from a huge bang – and yet it is captivating, eerily beautiful and like nothing I have ever seen before. It is accessible artwork, available for everyone to engage with, look at, and ponder over. I spoke with Pétillon to find out more about his process and how he went about choosing the space.
Grace Carter: Your installations are generally in abandoned spaces; both inside derelict houses and within empty areas of nature. What made you choose Covent Garden, such a densely populated area, for your latest project?
Charles Pétillon: Covent Garden is full of activity, people and life; that’s where the idea for ‘Heartbeat’ came from. The installation was inspired by and made for the space. On researching the district, I found that Covent Garden historically changed the landscape of London as the first public square, bringing people together as a meeting point in the heart of the city. It is this notion of connecting people and bridging across past and present that I want to make a comment on with the balloons - to retain the memory of the place so that it is not lost in time.
GC: Are there specific things that you look for when choosing the locations?
CP: Definitely. I have created my own language with balloons and they help me raise questions or subject matter once inside a space. The spaces are really important for me - some of my works have taken three years to create because I had to find the right locations. There are a few subjects I have explored in my recent works, like nature, pollution, nomadism, memory and infinity. Working on a new piece is a long process but once I have a question in mind, I'm always looking for different points of view from which I can engage with it and spaces are the clue.
GC: White balloons are a fundamental part of your work. Why balloons?
CP: I find it fascinating that balloons are universal and understood the world over, regardless of language or nationality. It’s amazing that something as simple and innocent as a balloon can be used to tell a variety of stories. I introduce balloons into everyday settings to pose a commentary on a more serious subject matter, such as the impact of science on nature, or pollution. For me they are not decorative. Introducing something unexpected into these settings like balloons allows me to ask these questions in a poetic way and encourages the viewer to consider the scene from a different light, whether I use single balloons or an enormous cluster like the 100,000 balloons that I have used in Covent Garden.
GC: What made you decide to only use white balloons?
CP: I use white balloons because they are simple and peaceful, which allows me to create a contrast with the setting in a poetic way. Each balloon has its own dimensions and yet is part of a giant but fragile composition. This fragility is represented by contrasting materials and also the whiteness of the balloons.
GC: Do you ever see yourself using another colour or medium of expression?
CP: White balloons have become my artistic language and motif. I love the simplicity of balloons and their universal storytelling ability. Who knows what may happen down the line, but I plan to continue working with balloons in the near future.
GC: How long does it take to inflate all the balloons and are they blown to specific sizes? What happens if one pops once installed?
CP: It takes a large and very dedicated team to work on a project such as this. It took a team of 25 people five nights to inflate each of the 100,000 individually sized balloons, which weigh a total of 320 kilos. The balloons are made from a very thick material so it is unlikely that any will pop. If they do, we have spares!
GC: Do you know what shape you want the installation to take beforehand and how do you get the balloons to stay in place once at their final destination?
CP: Working with balloons is definitely a challenge. I always start off with a specific idea in mind, but balloons are like an organic living sculpture and I have to adapt my vision to fit the space, the weather and the people I'm working with. I start by taking pictures of the space and drawing on top of them. As a photographer, the composition is very important for me. Once I find the right space and the right composition, I start doing the math and trying to work out how many balloons I will need. I then work with my team to inflate the balloons and install them on site. Each piece I create is unique and if I had to rebuild one of them, it would never look the same.
GC: Why did you decide for the balloons to glow in your latest installation and how does this 'glow' happen? Also, how did you settle on using 100,000 balloons?
CP: I have used light in my previous works because it helps me create a contrast within the space. ‘Heartbeat’ is my first public art installation and I wanted to add a new layer to my work by focussing on time. The light helps people become absorbed by the installation; they can forget the notion of time and space and feel the art through the pulsing light. To make it work, we simply put 50 white lights, which look like white balloons, inside the giant cluster.
To determine the number of balloons needed for ‘Heartbeat’, I started drawing it so I could calculate how big it would be. I realised my structure would be 1000 cubic metres and I know how many balloons are needed to fill one cubic metre. This is how I worked out that roughly 100,000 balloons were needed to create the installation.
GC: What do you hope people viewing and experiencing your art take away from it?
CP: I want people to have an immersive experience, to get lost in the installation and view the space they are in with a new perspective. There are many layers you could go into, but the idea was to make it simple and accessible so that anyone can take their own meaning from it. The response will naturally be different whether you are a child, adult or art director – that is the beauty of the balloons’ simplicity.
GC: Finally, what exciting plans and projects do you have lined up for the future?
CP: The response to ‘Heartbeat’ so far has been overwhelming. I’ve had discussions with partners around the world about several projects, but at the moment I want to focus on this installation! I definitely want to do an installation for the public again. I wanted ‘Heartbeat’ to be accessible to everyone and I get such joy in watching people experience it. It is open for everyone to see and interpret in their own way.
The project ends on 27th September 2015.
Words: Grace Carter
Artwork: Charles Pétillon