Artist Noëmi Lakmaier’s latest piece, Cherophobia takes the form of a 48-hour long live durational performance which will see Lakmaier suspended in mid-air using 20,000 helium balloons as part of the Unlimited Festival in September. Elinor Rowlands speaks to her about the roles of discomfort and control in her work.
Noëmi Lakmaier is well known for making work that puts her in uncomfortable and challenging situations. Past work includesOne Morning In May, where Lakmaier crawled on her hands and knees from Tower Hamlets to the Guerkin dressed in business attire. This normally easy one-mile stroll was for Lakmaier, slow and exhausting, taking her seven hours on the hottest day of the year. While in Undress/Redress, a live durational piece, Lakmaier explored the ambiguities of intimate inter-human interaction between the female disabled body and the able-bodied male.
Her latest piece, Cherophobia, commissioned by Unlimited, is an exciting opportunity for Lakmaier. “It’s very rare for any artist, disabled or not, to get that money, support and resources thrown at them; it just doesn’t happen very often.”
Cherophobia, scheduled to be put on in September 2016, will be a two-day live durational piece. It has been described as both a performance and a gathering but it is difficult for Lakmaier to even consider how this will work experientially for the audience. She smiles, “It is hard to tell because it’s never been done the way we imagine it.”
In practical terms, the venue will be open 48 hours right from the start to finish. Lakmaier explains:
“So at the start there will be me on the floor and I’ll get tied to a harness while there are loads of people around the outside of the space inflating balloons because it obviously takes a lot of manpower to put helium into the balloons”.
Slowly the balloons will be attached to Lakmaier.
“This mushroom cloud of balloons will get bigger and bigger and bigger and then, all going well, I will lift up and then, all going well, the balloons will lose the helium at the right rate and they’ll gently settle back down again.”
Lakmaier expects to be uncomfortable and recognises that she needs to prepare for the performance. This will begin with “short trials of being immobilised for short periods of time.” Although she has already tried being immobile before she has never done it for anywhere close to 48 hours. She feels that there is the possibility of her falling asleep during the performance or “I could imagine getting extremely anxious.”
She does not believe that she will enjoy the experience but thinks she will enjoy the time before the performance and after it is over. Lakmaier imagines that she will feel frustrated to some extent that she cannot be an audience member because she would like to be “part of the conversation and see it developing” but she does reflect that she will probably see it developing while “looking up at it.”
The idea for the piece has been around since 2008 when she won Shape Arts’ Adam Reynold’s Bursary award. Lakmaier is quick to point out that the idea simply popped into her head while she was artist in residence at the Camden Arts Centre.
“Initially I imagined it taking place in the studio at the Camden Arts Centre which is comparatively quite a big space”. But after she had done all the maths she realised that it would have been far too small, and since the residency itself was only nine or ten weeks she says that it would have been unrealistic timewise.
“When I initially had the idea, I was like, yeah! Boom! I’m going to do it here on my first big residency! I’m going to float from balloons! Yay!” She laughs again as she remembers how the curator reminded her that it might not be possible. Lakmaier recalls the initial image that came to mind: “it was this old building, grand hall type space with windows behind it but it’s moved on from there in some ways. It’s grown dramatically because I didn’t understand at the time just how many balloons it would really take – at the time I thought maybe a couple of thousand, that’ll do.”
For Lakmaier it is still difficult to visualise twenty thousand balloons. She explains, “I’m just not sure how big it’s going to be. It’s going to be massive.” The team will be large and the roles will be filled from the top down.
Will the art piece then be physically dangerous? Yes, there is a calculated risk but the piece is well managed. Nervous laughter creeps in as Lakmaier explains that being immobilised for this length of time is in itself dangerous because she’s now been told that apparently it used to be a medieval torture technique, information she did not know before.
“So we’ll have to build in so my major joints can be moved because there’s a risk if they can’t move they could freeze sort of permanently which of course I want to avoid.” These images are in sharp contrast to the first image of a woman being lifted by a few colourful balloons, and the enormity of this project feels overwhelming talking about it. When she first saw the piece in her head “it felt so beautifully simple: balloons, person, ta da! I didn’t really think at the time like, maths, engineers, science and medicine.”
The calculations around the support demonstrate just how much thought has been put into the piece. Lakmaier explains that there will be medical staff on site and that the risk is not ridiculous because the main engineer and rope suspension expert who she is working with “is extremely experienced in those suspension techniques”. But she does add that people have suffered heart attacks and strokes when being suspended because their blood pools in the wrong places.
Suddenly, the idea of a room full of balloons illuminates just how large this project is and another practical issue is flagged up in the form of static “and the strong smell of latex.” Lakmaier acknowledges that this is definitely something “we have to counteract in some way” but she quickly steers the interview back towards the direction of audience experience and rightly so. In the space, Lakmaier wants the audience “to go under the balloons to really see me” and she hopes that there’ll be lots of interaction and conversation, but not with Lakmaier herself. She will be off bounds.
The piece will also be linked up to social media and streamed in 10 venues across the UK and she anticipates at least another 10 worldwide. Lakmaier hopes that the piece could spread “across as many time zones as possible so we don’t have as many natural lulls so say when we are sleeping the Australians are looking at it and are tweeting about it and hopefully the whole world over Facebook and [through the] tweeting community will have a discussion about the piece.” The interactive element of this piece is quite evident even though Lakmaier will not be interactive at all. “I’ll just be hanging out.”
Lakmaier describes that the experience might be “pretty uncomfortable I should think. But that seems to be what I do: put myself into uncomfortable situations.” She explains that she will be extremely passive throughout, more so than in previous works.
Yet underlying her humour and laughter about the piece there is a sense of tension and concern. It is clear Lakmaier takes her work very seriously and it is at this point that the word cherophobia is discussed. Cherophobia is a psychiatric condition, a phobia of happiness and Lakmaier is at first apprehensive to discuss her own feelings towards her relationship with happiness.
“I guess a lot of it is about control as well I think, so the idea of happiness and control kind of connected to me and I am quite a control freak and I am quite scared of giving up control. Really for the past 10 years I’ve been deliberately putting myself into a position where in a sense I’m not in control but ultimately I’m completely in control, because I’m engineering the whole thing even if physically I’m not in control.”
The development of Lakmaier’s thinking about her own relationship with happiness developed in the Camden Arts Centre when she was painting shoes yellow because she had so much time to herself to think about what an experiment in happiness would really mean and whether it was possible.
“I came across the concept of cherophobia and I began to wonder if I was scared of being happy and maybe whether I was taking the piss out of happiness by creating this over-the-top yellow ball as an experiment in happiness.”
Lakmaier hesitates as she reveals that she has grown up around a lot of mental health issues and that she has had quite serious mental health issues herself. Her relationship to happiness and contentment “has kind of evolved from my own experience of anxiety and depression and now working with, hopefully, helping other people”. She is currently training to be a psychotherapist.
Perhaps tellingly so, Lakmaier is fascinated by the phobia and the thinking of the development of it. Cherophobia must be “a torn state of affairs. It must be very interesting to be pathologically terrified of being happy, because if I’m scared of spiders I just try not to be in the same place as spiders but if you’re afraid of being happy, the thing that everybody wants is the thing that really scares you. It seems to be such a push and pull in the condition.”
This same sense of push and pull is also evident in her piece. Lakmaier sighs as she reveals that it is a play with control as well as well as a play with contrasting images pulling against each other, “that kind of over-the-top bubbly, over-excited static balloon childhood happiness image and then this kind of quite heavy tiny body that’s completely restrained and hanging off it, that is not in control and probably the opposite of floaty and bubbly.”
Lakmaier smiles as she reflects on the tension between the two as really interesting. Similarly, she recognises the inherent irony in her artistic experiment: the vulnerability of her prone body unable to speak or interact and without control. Yet, simultaneously, the disabled body is elevated, looks down on us all and the huge cluster of coloured balloons, broadcast globally, screams, ‘look at me, I am here’ and cannot fail to attract the attention of many.
Cherophobia will be performed as part of the Unlimited 2016 festival. See here for more information about the commission.