When artist Jason Hackenwerth was a little boy, a clown taught him to make balloon animals. That clown was his mom, and today he’s following in her footsteps, using 10,000 to 12,000 balloons to make amorphous creatures standing as tall as 30 feet. Three of them are part of his downtown L.A. site-specific installation “Animal Soul.”
“Something my mother always said [that] stuck in my mind was that balloons are magical. They have a magical way to capture people’s attention and it captures some kind of joy, perhaps in relation to their childhood,” Hackenwerth says.
In addition to the three works, Helio, Nagi and Cronus, Hackenwerth will unleash two “wearables,” inflatable sculptures that can be worn by performers dancing through the streets at random hours. “Wearables will engage people who might otherwise not be looking for an experience of art. Just like street art, it allows artists to have a direct voice with the public,” he says.
After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2003, Hackenwerth moved to New York City. Working in more conventional mediums such as painting and sculpture, he exhibited in galleries but wasn't getting the kind of notice he'd hoped for. When balloons became his primary material, the ephemeral quality of his work made it an uneasy fit with the art market. But for Hackenwerth, entropy is part of the appeal.
“For me to make big, stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of work is really about communicating the temporary nature of life and get you to look around, appreciate something beautiful for a moment and, maybe in doing that, recognize the potential for transcendence in your life,” says the artist, who normally works with latex inflatables but is changing it up for the new installation. “The sculptures I’m unveiling in Los Angeles are nylon and vinyl sculptures that will stand outside for two weeks. That’s a very new process for me.”
Even if Christie’s and Sotheby’s have no use for the works, institutions and event planners do. His installations have appeared in places such as the Guggenheim, Venice Biennale, Art Basel in Miami and London's Victoria & Albert Museum. “The temporary installations allow us to ebb and flow with the community we’re working within,” says Erica Overskei of Arts Brookfield, a division of Brookfield Property Partners, which owns and operates the two L.A. locations, Figat7th and Wells Fargo Center. “It keeps a high level of excitement and activity within the organization. Temporary is our M.O.”
Arts Brookfield has worked with artists including Pae White and James Turrell in the past, putting few limits on them, though overt sexuality or political themes are verboten. “His artwork is approachable,” Overskei says of Hackenwerth’s sculptures, which will move to New York after the L.A. run is done. “There’s a freewheeling attitude in Los Angeles over the summer. It feels like everybody’s on summer vacation even though they’re going to work every single day. We wanted to play on that, and this seemed like the right type of installation to do.”
Hackenwerth’s playful side is plainly on display in his lyrical sculptures yet he remains deadly serious about his objective: changing hearts and minds. “When it comes to contemporary art, there are a lot of people who just don’t like it. They don’t get it, they’re afraid if it for whatever reasons,” he says. “I think there are a lot of people who can’t recognize art because they haven’t encountered art that is accessible. With wearables I can clobber people over the head, and maybe later, when they see something unrecognizable, they might be more open to it.”
“Animal Soul” kicks off with the Show-Your-Spirit-Animal Quiet Clubbing Party at Figat7th, 735 S. Figueroa St., downtown; Fri., July 14, 4-10 p.m.; free.