One of Andy Warhol’s most enchanting projects, Silver Clouds, was made possible by the United States military’s attempts to keep sandwiches fresh.
In 1966, Warhol’s collaborator Billy Kluver recommended the artist use Scotchpak—a heat-sealable, metalized plastic film used to package Army rations—to make helium balloons. Warhol at first intended to float them off the roof of his New York City studio, the Factory, but eventually filled the Leo Castelli Gallery with the gleaming, pillow-shaped balloons, which were blown around the room by fans. The installation has since been restaged all over the world. It reflects many of Warhol’s primary interests: from performance art to the sameness and disposability of consumer goods to the glittery lifestyle reflected in the Factory’s foil-covered walls. But the appeal of Silver Clouds is at once more innocent and more visceral than, say, Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series: Balloons just make people happy.
Until April 27, Silver Clouds will hover at Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA), along with five of Warhol’s print portfolios and Nat Finkelstein’s photographs of Warhol and his entourage in the ’60s. But LUMA isn’t just offering a paean to the king of Pop: Loyola’s director of cultural affairs, Pamela Ambrose, and curatorial assistant Lisa Stuchly have made dance an equally crucial part of the museum’s programming.
After choreographer Merce Cunningham saw Silver Clouds in 1966, he decided to incorporate the installation into his dance RainForest, shown in Chicago in 1968. (The work also featured music by David Tudor and costumes by Jasper Johns.) Visitors to LUMA can watch a video projection of RainForest before entering Silver Clouds. Ambrose explains that, once she and Stuchly decided to screen RainForest, it seemed natural to invite contemporary Chicago dancers to use Silver Clouds for inspiration. The Seldoms and Loyola Dances performed amid the balloons last month; Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak danced March 4 and returns Saturday 8; and Thodos Dance, the Chicago Moving Company and Hedwig visit later in March and April. (For a complete schedule, visit luc.edu/luma.)
Just as Cunningham did in RainForest, these dancers must incorporate chance and improvisation into their work, because the “clouds” are impossible to control. LUMA staff members take turns balloon-wrangling. “The balloons are temperamental,” says Stuchly. “We all feel like they have their own personality: Some of them like to nest, some of them like to go up the stairs.” Ambrose admits that the installation is high-maintenance: The clouds eventually lose their helium, forcing LUMA to replace one-fifth of the approximately 50 balloons each day with fresh ones purchased from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Ambrose and Stuchly agree that the Seldoms (the only group that performed as of press time) fulfilled all of their hopes for LUMA’s complicated, multidisciplinary collaboration. “The Seldoms rolled dice to figure out where they would dance, what movements they would do and what lines they would speak, because some of it was spoken word,” Stuchly says. The dancers also brought humor to the work by supplying their own balloons—and sucking helium from them before speaking.
LUMA contrasts these ephemeral dances with a fifth exhibit: “…point…to line…to plane: Labanotation of Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading.” Choreographers used to memorize dances, with limited success. In 1928, Rudolf Laban invented a shorthand for dancers’ movements that’s now widely used; LUMA has assembled several pages of “Labanotation” for Tudor’s 1975 production. “I just love the way it all works together,” Stuchly concludes. “I think [the exhibits] create a complete picture, especially when the dancers are performing.”
During a recent visit, we noticed that gallerygoers recorded their own interactions with the balloons, no doubt for Flickr or YouTube. Warhol would approve.
Bonnie Brooks lectures on “Dance + the Visual Arts: A 20th-Century History from Picasso to Cunningham” at LUMA on Tuesday 11, 6pm.