Inside Martin Creed's Balloon Room at the Nasher, On the Last Day of Its Existence

Saturday was the last full day of the Martin Creed exhibition, Work No. 1190: Half the air in a given space, at the Nasher that consisted of 9,000 giant gold balloons filling an eight-foot high gallery almost to the ceiling. I headed down with a friend Sunday for the de-installation event and closing celebration, because we heard you could take the balloons home. Art be damned, I'm just a sucker for free balloons. 

The steps leading down to the exhibit room each let out a piano tone when they're stepped on, meaning -- with a million people walking up and down the stairs that crowded afternoon -- there was a constant weird, creepy, dissonant sound filling the air, like circus music in Hell. 

A huge line wrapped all the way around the room outside the exhibit. A pyramid of cardboard boxes stood in one corner, a row of cactus lined up by height in another. A little girl wearing a blue and white tutu ran out of the balloon room, shrieking. Volunteers by the door of the exhibit kicked errant balloons back inside and slammed the doors shut again; you could just barely get a glimpse of people inside amongst the balloons - an arm or a hand emerging from the tide of yellow and vanishing again. It was like a David Lynch dream sequence down there.

Apparently, waiting in line for like 40 minutes to get into a room filled with balloons and then take one home (the main method of Balloon Room de-installation is people leaving with the them) makes everyone regress to the age when we were all short enough to get into the ball pit at McDonald's. As my friend and I stood there, we both started complaining. My back hurt. My purse was too heavy. I was hungry.

"I don't like that guy's mustache," my friend complained, eyeing the dude in front of us. "It smells weird in here." 

But I forgot all of that as soon as the volunteer opened the exhibit door and I walked in among those balloons. There was a vast swishing sound in the room, like standing in an immense field of corn or wading out into an endless ocean at midnight under the full moon. Something like that. It was impossible to focus on anything in the room but the balloons, the gold color filling your field of vision, the sensation of having to kick balloons aside in order to walk forward. 

Also, the hair. The staff has been adding 1000 balloons a week over the course of the exhibit to reach the full 9,000, so some of those balloons have been in there awhile. There was hair on many of them, dark whorls clinging to the balloons' latex surface, strands that felt unusually scratchy when they happened to brush against a wrist or a forearm. Here and there, people had drawn something on the balloons: an eyeball, a heart, something that resembled Sponge Bob. I felt something rough under my feet, reached down and picked up a large gold hoop earring. 

It was impossible to see more than foot in front of me. I kept thinking I was in the center of the room and then running into walls. Nearby, my friend was joyously shouting various weird things: "I'm so normal!" or "Try lying on them!" 

I have no idea how long we were in there. People kept emerging from the balloons and startling each other -- you'd feel totally alone and then suddenly, a face would come looming up out of the yellowness and you'd smile sheepishly at each other, then go back to flailing and squealing and butterfly-stroking your way through the balloons. 

One of the volunteers had told me on the way in that "most people leave with a smile on their face." (He also called me "ma'am," which made me giggle.) But it was true -- I left the balloon room grinning idiotically, my heart pounding, my hair standing up in static-y points all around me. It was beautiful. It was transcendent. 

And if you didn't go, don't feel too bad: As is the case with Creed's "you could've but you didn't" sort of art, it probably wouldn't be that hard to reproduce at home, given several thousand balloons, a compressor and a free afternoon. Maybe several free afternoons. 

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