The Balloon Project: Art Installation Focuses On Global Refugee Crisis

GOWANUS – A Gowanus-based artist has created an installation in support of world refugees and migrants using an unusual material—balloons. Yan Kong has spent three years working on The Balloon Project, an homage to the “human spirit, courage, and survival.”

Kong replaces a burst balloon (Pamela Wong/Bklyner)

Her multimedia project “incorporates mechanical engineering and visuals” and features 32 white balloons inflating and deflating to “simulate refugee and migrants’ breathing while fleeing their countries to seek safety and freedom,” according to the release for the exhibit. She uses an air compressor to inflate and deflate the balloons, timing the “breathing” in two-second intervals to “create a sense of urgency, a rapid breathing pattern, as a person’s breathing in trauma.” Some of the balloons are intended to pop during the exhibit’s run, to symbolize lost lives.

Kong was inspired to create The Balloon Project after seeing the 2015 photograph of a small Syrian boy who drowned as his family attempted to emigrate to Greece. “It was like one after another, the media just fed you so much of these horrific images, and they just stuck with me,” Kong told Bklyner on Monday. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ I never got involved with politics before, and I thought I can’t just do a watercolor and be happy with that. I want to have a say. Not that it would make any impact on the current political scene, but I want to be able to speak out a little bit on my own terms.”

Kong decided to use balloons in her installation because she thought they would best illustrate breathing. “I thought about people dying, all these refugees were dying…even now, and I thought about breathing, how they took their last breath before they died,” she explained. “There’s so much disagreement among people and yet we all share the same common denominator, the air…. Everyone breathes the same air, the same oxygen.”

Kong describes her practice as “experimenting,” adding “I always experiment. I just want to challenge myself and see if I can get it done.” She also works in drawing, painting, and sculpture. When she first decided to take on The Balloon Project, she did a lot of research on how to replicate inhaling and exhaling. She eventually found John and Kent, of Air and Power Transmission in Farmingdale, Long Island, who advised and guided Kong through the mechanics of the project. It took Kong approximately a year to figure out how to time the air compressor to the intervals she wanted and to suppress the noise for a more calming, meditative effect. The exhibit runs continuously for 19 minutes.

Six videos are projected on to the white balloons and white walls of the installation. Kong created a 28-minute film, Immigrants of the 21st Century in America, for the installation. “I wanted to find out who are the immigrants of the last decade,” Kong said of her short film. “I found that besides the current influx of people from Middle Eastern countries, Mexico, and South America, there are so many people who want to come to America. They are Italian, French, German….”

Along with interviewing friends and people she met at local cultural events, Kong spoke with an undocumented Chinese man, an undocumented Mexican family, and a Guatemalan woman and her daughter who were recently granted asylum. The common thread she found in everyone that she interviewed was that “they love being here,” according to Kong. “They said, ‘I like living in America.’ They want to be here. They are happy to be here. They are doing what they want.”

The other five films Kong will screen with her installation are provided by Women Make Movies. “I want to show different perspectives of political persecution, of the economic crisis around the world,” Kong said. The films include:

  • Marcela Zamora Chamorro’s Maria in Nobody’s Land (María en Tierra de Nadie), 2010, which follows three Salvadoran women on their dangerous journey to the United States
  • Gabriela Bortolamedi’s Ni Aqui, Ni Alla (Neither Here, Nor There), 2014, which documents the challenges of an undocumented college student
  • Mikaela Shwer’s Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie), 2015, about a young woman trying to keep her undocumented status a secret
  • Karen Winther’s Exit: Leaving Extremism Behind, 2018, in which a former right-wing extremist examines why people join hate groups and the dangers they face when they attempt to leave the radicalized communities
  • Jessie Deeter’s A Revolution in Four Seasons, 2016, which follows two very different women working to help draft a new constitution after the Tunisian Revolution. Emna Ben Jemaa, a journalist fighting for free speech, and Jawhara Ettis, a strict Islamist from a rural town, must make difficult choices to balance their public political roles with their personal lives.

Along with participating in Gowanus Open Studios on October 19-20, Kong will host special events during the exhibit’s run. The opening party on October 12 (5:30pm-8pm) will feature food tastings cooked by immigrant women from Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, and China.

A Poetry Night will take place on Saturday, November 2 (4pm-5:30pm) featuring Sarah Riggs, Celina Su, Asiya Wadud, and Jianna Park. Two movies nights are also scheduled. The first on Friday, October 25, will screen A Thousand Girls Like Me at 7pm and Birth on the Border at 8pm. On Friday, November 1, Defiant Lives will be shown at 7pm, followed by I Am the Revolution at 8pm.

Yan Kong holds a sea creature foam sculpture from her “Save the Great Barrier Reef” series (Pamela Wong/Bklyner)

Born in Canton, China, Kong received her BA in Biology and Chemistry from Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. She worked in cell biology for a few years before receiving her Green Card and leaving her job to pursue the arts. In 1998 she co-founded the Asian American Women Artists Alliance and became its Executive Director before retiring from the position in 2012.

Kong made headlines in 2017 when her Gowanus basement and art studio was repeatedly flooded by new condo construction next door. While the developer never compensated Kong for the damages, he is paying her a $2,000/month license fee for erecting scaffolding around her home. Kong used that money to help fund The Balloon Project.

“I hope that people will have a different sensitivity towards immigrants and the people seeking asylum, because after all, this country is known for immigration,” Kong said of her project. “It’s the different, diverse people that make this country great.”

The Balloon Project
AWA Gallery, 136 15th Street, Gowanus
Gallery hours: Thursday through Sunday, 12pm to 6pm
Exhibition on view October 10 through November 10

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Pamela Wong

Pam is a staff reporter at Bklyner, covering North-Western parts of Brooklyn. You can reach her at Pamela@bklyner.com. Tips are always welcome. She also writes about art at arthag.typepad.com.

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