Unlimited: Cherophobia

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Noëmi Lakmaier’s 48-hour durational live-art piece, saw her attempt to lift her immobilised body off the ground using tens of thousands of helium balloons. The piece took place in Shoreditch Church in East London from noon on 7 September to noon 9 September and was live-streamed to the Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited Festival. Review by Joe Turnbull

photo of thousadnds of brightly coloured balloons in a church attached to artist Noemi Lakmaier

Cherophobia at Shoreditch Church. Photo by Shiri Shalmy

More than any other of the main Unlimited commissions (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) from this round, Noëmi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia captured the imagination and set up a delicious feeling of tension and anticipation. When you first hear of the project, of an artist floating effortlessly from 20,000 helium balloons a particular image forms; one that the reality would be hard to live up to. Add to that the gruelling 48-hour marathon Lakmaier was proposing putting herself through and in hindsight this project could have found more success in embedding it’s process-driven nature into the interaction with its supporters and its audience.

And so it was that Lakmaier was nowhere to be seen for large sections of the 48 hours, her weight at one point replaced by sand-bags due to unspecified complications. And if this piece taught us anything it is that art this daring, bold and radical needs to be allowed to take risks, and indeed, needs to be allowed to fail. If anything, the producers could have embraced the complications and made them part of the work; the audience were left largely in the dark as to what was happening; when I arrived at Shoreditch Church. Lakmaier was covered by a black screen for almost the whole time with no communication as to what was going on.

Photo of Lakmaier’s still and trussed body was floating a few feet off the ground

Photo of Noemi Lakmaier’s still and trussed body was floating a few feet off the ground

But despite all this there were a few truly magical hours where Lakmaier’s still and trussed body was floating a few feet off the ground surrounded by the majesty of Shoreditch Church’s vaulted ceilings attached to a lurid, almost psychedelic beehive of 20,000 balloons. For those moments you almost had to suspend your disbelief as if watching her ascend to the heavens but not quite get there; perhaps in a zen-like state of levitation. It was a bizarre conflation of the crucifixion and the Buddha attaining enlightenment.

In the flesh, the spectacle was pretty breath-taking, simply because of the scale and vibrancy of the colours and the grandeur of the surroundings. The live-streamed experience at Southbank was altogether different. A static camera angle failed to capture the enormity and the wonder. And in fact made it feel very uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic. It was akin to watching Big Brother through the night when they’re sleeping; almost static, passive and vulnerable.

Putting a disabled artist at the centre of this gaze felt very poignant at a time when disabled people are being so ruthlessly objectified either as scroungers or superhumans at the Paralympics in Rio. And what could be more superhuman than flying?

photo of thousands of brightly coloured balloons in a church attached to artist Noemi Lakmaier

Cherophobia at Shoreditch Church. Photo by Shiri Shalmy

This was clearly a work that embraced paradox and dichotomies. On the one hand we had the childlike wonder and playfulness of thousands of brightly coloured balloons, on the other the artist’s staid but clearly pained face as she suffered this ordeal. It’s as if Lakmaier wanted us all to experience cherophobia – which is a fear of happiness – for ourselves.

She did this by association. By making the audience associate the joyfulness of the spectacle and the balloons with her personal distress. By associating the freedom of flying with her imprisonment in a web of ropes that looked almost like medieval torture equipment. By associating the effortlessness of floating with the intense mental and physical effort on her part and the ceaseless work of her dozens of assistants to keep the show on the road.

Earlier in the year, Elinor Rowlands interviewed Lakmaier about her practice and the forthcoming piece discussing how control was such an important facet of her work. Cherophobia was no different. The whole thing was tightly orchestrated, meticulously planned and of course all authored by Lakmaier herself. Yet for those 48 hours she ceded power and put her fate in the hands of others. It felt significant that Lakmaier’s body was at the centre of a grand spectacle wrapped up in great forces beyond her control. It raised difficult questions about agency, domination and submission.

So whilst Lakmaier may not have been able to see the full 48 hours through, by raising such a difficult set of provocations and taking such huge risks both artistically and with her own health, it seems harsh to judge this as a failure. If her aim was to disrupt, challenge and push boundaries then in that she has overwhelmingly succeeded.