How can art help us engage and reflect on the nature of public space in the time of COVID-19? That’s the question asked by internationally acclaimed artist Jeppe Hein whose new installations at LaGuardia Airport’s recently-opened Terminal B provide an attempt to understand the challenges and possibilities of interactive art amid a global pandemic.
With his sprawling All Your Wishes — an installation of 70 colorful balloons hovering just beneath the new terminal’s ceiling and complimented by three bright-red Modified Social Benches that curve, loop, and twist like the daredevil roller coasters of Copenhagen’s legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park — the iconoclastic Jeppe Hein has made a bold move to transform New York’s long-neglected domestic air travel hub into a living art space.
“These two forms of social sculpture were conceived to provide for a moment of respite to travelers, to spark joy, alter perceptions, open the viewer to new experiences, and create the conditions that foster moments of empathy and fellowship amidst the hustle of a busy transit hub,” Hein explains in his first-ever interview with Denmark In New York and part of a new series of COVID-19 Culture Conversations, through which Denmark in New York spotlights innovative initiatives and crisis response in New York and Denmark amid the global pandemic.
“Artworks in public spaces open up new possibilities for people to lose their timidity towards art, while in museums and galleries the relationship between the viewer and the artwork is already defined to a strong degree.”
“When people see an art piece developed and integrated into public space,” adds Hein, “it is often easier for them to get access to it and thus their approach to art in general changes.”
According to the Danish artist, however, the interactive art experience does not mean that audiences lose respect for the artwork. In fact, it turns out it’s quite the opposite.
“People integrate this experience more into their lives,” Hein continues. “By carrying this new experience and awareness into their lives, this will probably change their attitude towards many other things also — hopefully for the better.”
Jeppe Hein’s artistic adventure in New York started at the Marian Goodman Gallery back in 2004 and since then he has contributed with many artworks to the City That Never Sleeps. In 2019, his Breathe With Me project opened at the United Nations Headquarters amid the General Assembly’s Climate Week and later moved to a prominent location in Central Park, inviting world leaders and the general New York public alike to ‘paint their own breath’ — represented by brushstrokes that followed the rhythm of an inhale and an exhale. The interactive art project was a sumptuous ode to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and a celebration of the communal experience of people breathing the same air around the world.
“For me, New York is about expectations,” says Hein. “People came and come here from all over the world on their quest for a better life and for the freedom they couldn’t find in the places they departed from. I have encountered so many different people in New York with all sorts of backgrounds, languages, abilities, and energies. I find it amazing how they all share the same space and what they create out of it.”
“But,” he continues, “all these wonderful encounters are in a certain way ephemeral. They vanish the same way they come. Unexpectedly. This is what makes New York unique to me and why I think my artworks fit perfectly in such a place, as I also make people question their idea of reality, by giving them something unexpected.”
Jeppe Hein’s artwork is renowned for inviting the audience to reflect on the very nature of the public space we inhabit. New Yorkers already experienced this playful approach back in 2016 when Hein titled another Public Art Fund-commissioned display on view in Brooklyn Bridge Park Please Touch the Art, generating “spontaneous expression and social connection” and giving visitors “new perspectives on ourselves and the world we share.”
In the wake of these past months of social distancing and the general disruption of the public sphere across the globe, we asked Jeppe Hein if he sees any opportunities in the COVID-19 crisis in terms of how we can rethink the use of public spaces in the future.
“The crisis has already led us to rethink the use of public spaces and we use them differently already,” he says. “We recognize that people need more space to be outside, more green areas in crowded cities and urban districts, more bikeways in traffic and, above all, more dialogue, empathy, and cooperation. I will continue to support this process with my artworks in New York and all over the world.”
Sofus Goldschmidt Pedersen is the politics, culture and public diplomacy intern for Denmark in New York.