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AIR Summit One Vanderbilt
Photograph: courtesy SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

Meet the artist behind NYC's most Instagrammable experience

We chatted with Kenzo Digital who designed "AIR" at the new SUMMIT One Vanderbilt.

Shaye Weaver
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Shaye Weaver
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There's a fine line between "immersive art" and something that was simply made for the 'gram. One artist has been able to bridge that gap this year in an incredible way.

Kenzo Digital's "AIR" at the new SUMMIT One Vanderbilt is both wildly immersive and photographable but also aesthetically valuable to viewers and to the city.

RECOMMENDED: The new Summit One Vanderbilt observation deck has one of the best views of NYC

After a trip through a mirrored hallway with its own digital elements, visitors take an elevator up to the 91st floor of the new building, where Kenzo Digital has created a totally mirrored infinity room called "AIR" that reflects the sky and city views over and over, making you feel like you're walking in the sky or on another plane of existence. Looking above and below in this two-story space, you see your reflection repeating forever.

Besides the absolutely breathtaking view of the city (where you can see all the major landmarks and bridges), the view changes with the weather and time of day. When it's nice, it'll look like you're walking among the clouds. When it's stormy, you'll see the rain fly sideways and around the building. The sun in the morning will cast a different light than the sun in the evening.

Summit One Vanderbilt
Photograph: Summit One Vanderbilt

Kenzo Digital, a digital artist who has worked with Beyoncé, told us that the room highlights the "fluidity of nature."

"Every time you come, it is radically different," he tells us, describing the space as a "massive cathedral" or "a Central Park in the sky" that was "insane" to build. 

The 41-year-old Brooklynite developed "AIR" for New Yorkers specifically and to give them a meditative and contemplative escape from the city that shows how the built world is connected to the natural world. The hope is that they have a powerful and existential moment of relief that lets them take an inventory of the direction of their lives and offer some self-reflection literally and metaphorically.

"This is not something need to tiptoe around. You can be free with your thoughts and relish in that."

By using mirrors, you can look at "AIR" as artwork "about yourself to help you understand yourself better in a rapid pace and confusing world," he says. "All of them are means to see yourself more humanly and primally and see yourself in contrast...with who you say you are versus who you actually are. All of these things are pointing towards self-awareness."

He says he gained inspiration from Christo's "The Gates" in Central Park from 2005 and "New York City Waterfalls" by Olafur Eliasson, both of which are works that transformed the space and the city around them by changing viewers' perspectives. "AIR" is also eerily similar to a recurring dream he's had over the past two decades dealing with a two-floor space inside a fictional skyscraper in a city based on Gotham and NYC.

AIR Summit One Vanderbilt
Photograph: courtesy SUMMIT One Vanderbilt

Over the past several years, New York has seen its share of immersive exhibits and art shows that promise a visceral, immersive experience designed with Instagram in mind (or at least visitors sharing about them on social media)—Happy Go Lucky, The Rosé Mansion, The Stone Age, SuperReal, Dream Machine and the van Gogh exhibits to name a few.

In general, some of them fall short of offering much beyond the visuals.

"Some of these things are much more transactional and more about the pictures that come out of them," Kenzo Digital explains, mentioning he's been to quite a few in the past years. "The people who are there are about telling the story of 'living my best life' and everyone is super happy...between those photos, it's like a wrestling match for a low budget photography production It's super tense, super aggravated, hyper petty and passive-aggressive and a generally terrible human experience. I dislike the people I'm with when in those spaces."

Has Kenzo Digital actually managed to create something both Instagrammable and valuable as art in its own right?

"At the end of the day, you can only eat but so much sugar and once you consume something of actual nutritional value, there's a difference between what is true and what is not," he says. "It's been a long time that storytelling and culture ...a lot of the things that occupy our time that we consider culture are quite emotionally dead and devoid, so things that make you feel alive and engage your mind I think are unique and powerful because of that."

Kenzo Digital
Photograph: courtesy Kenzo Digital

He notes that visitors to "AIR" have actually been kind to one another and joyful.

"One of the miraculous things about 'AIR' is that people are just happy," he says. "Everyone is joyous, curious, engaged and just nice to each other. It might be the only place in Manhattan or the Tri-state area where New Yorkers are the nicest to each other." 

He doesn't know why this is exactly. Perhaps it's the aspect of exploration and wonder one gets while in "AIR." Every corner offers a new perspective of the city landscape that unfolds before you but also puts you in that scene above and below you and almost in 360-degrees. The more one explores, the more is unveiled.

"By design, it's anti-fine art," he adds. "It's about curiosity as the primary engagement. You're not in a museum. This is not something need to tiptoe around. You can be free with your thoughts and relish in that."

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