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.”
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, aka Geronimo (the name riffs on paratroopers and her nickname, Jihanimo), has choreographed tens of thousands of balloons, measuring from ten inches to ten feet, throughout the David H. Koch Theater. They are scaling the building’s exterior and spilling 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.
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 shapeshifting of the balloons as the season progresses.
At the heart of her work is reimagining 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.
The idea for Geronimo had originated serendipitously, when Zencirli, a Seattle resident at the time, 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 to L.A. and the birth of an artist 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.
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 watched 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 theater, the lightness—and the darkness and shadows that confront it—create this beautiful human experience. My goal is to replicate that.”
This story originally appeared in New York City Ballet’s Winter 2018 Playbill.