Cherophobia: Floating artist Noemi Lakmaier talks helium balloons and the fear of happiness

By Elinor Rowlands | 19 April 2016

Elinor Rowlands talks to Noemi Lakmaier about Cherophobia, a 48-hour live durational artwork scheduled to be unveiled in London in September 2016

a photo of woman seen from above with a series of balloons attached to her skirt
© James Allan / James Allan Photography
Noemi Lakmaier is well known for making art that puts her in uncomfortable and challenging situations. Past work includes One Morning In May (2012) where she crawled on her hands and knees from Tower Hamlets to the Gherkin dressed in business attire.

This normally easy one-mile stroll was, for Lakmaier, slow and exhausting without her wheelchair, and took her seven hours on the hottest day of the year. For Undress/Redress (2014), Lakmaier’s disabled body was undressed to nudity and then redressed by an able bodied, smartly dressed male.

For her latest artwork she will be held up only by balloons for 48 hours.

Cherophobia has been described as both a performance and a gathering. But as Lakmaier explains, it is difficult to even consider how this will work experientially for the audience “because it’s never been done the way we imagine it.”

It will begin with Lakmaier on the floor, tied to a harness as assistants and volunteers inflate balloons with helium. Slowly the balloons will be attached to form what she describes as a, “mushroom cloud of balloons that will get bigger and bigger and bigger”

“And then I will lift up,” she adds, “and all going well the balloons will lose the helium at the right rate and I’ll gently settle back down again.”

a photo of a woman seen through a bunch of balloons from above
© James Allan / James Allan Photography
Born in Vienna, Lakmaier moved to England to study a BA and MA in Fine Art at Winchester School of Art. She has since exhibited widely in the UK and internationally with a number of live installation art pieces that often involve her own disabled body. Cherophobia is the latest piece to challenge perceptions about disability and the arts.

“I am quite scared of giving up control,” she says when we meet for a chat at her flat in East London. It is something I sense during our interview; there is a tension about how she will be represented, particularly when we discuss her relationship with disability arts.

But the “control freak” in Lakmaier makes for a fascinating push and pull. Over the past ten years she has been deliberately putting herself into what she describes as “a position where in a sense I’m not in control but really ultimately I am completely because I’m engineering the whole thing - even if physically I’m not.”

Floaty and bubbly

“It’s that kind of over-the-top, bubbly over-excited, static balloon childhood happiness image,” says Lakmaier, “and then this kind of quite heavy tiny body that’s completely restrained and hanging off it that’s not in control at all - and probably the opposite of floaty and bubbly.”

The artwork has been commissioned by Unlimited, an organisation that aims to embed work by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector and reach new audiences.

For Lakmaier, it’s the chance to realise an idea that has been circulating in her mind since 2008, when she won Shape Arts’ Adam Reynold’s Bursary Award and a residency at the Camden Arts Centre.

a photo of a woman holding balloons
Noemi Lalmaier at Fierce Festival 2014© James Allan / James Allan Photography
Initially she thought she could do the piece in the gallery, but it proved unrealistic. “I was like, yeah! Boom! I’m going to do it here, my first big residency! I’m going to float from balloons! Yay!” she laughs, recalling the initial image.

“I didn’t understand at the time just how many balloons it would really take – I thought maybe a few thousand, a couple of thousand, that’ll do. It’s grown dramatically.”

In fact the project will take up to 20,000 balloons with 20 teams of three assisting. “I’m just not sure how big it’s going to be,” she adds. “But it’s going to be massive.”

Just hanging out

Lakmaier wants the audience “to go under the balloons to really see me” and she hopes there will be lots of interaction and conversation, but not with Lakmaier herself. She will be off bounds. “I’ll just be hanging out,” she says.

The piece will also be fed out through social media and streamed in ten venues across the UK including the Southbank Centre during their Unlimited Festival 2016, a six-day showcase for the artistic vision of disabled artists. At least another ten venues worldwide will help show the piece “across as many time zones as possible.”

It’s a playful artwork but it is clear Lakmaier takes her work very seriously. The term cherophobia is the fear of happiness and she is at first apprehensive to discuss her own relationship with happiness.

“I’ve had quite serious mental health issues myself and I’ve now trained as a psychotherapist, so my relationship to depression and anxiety and I guess on the flipside, happiness and contentment, has kind of evolved from my own experience of anxiety and depression,” she explains.

a photo of a group of people attaching balloons to the dress of a woman sitting on the floor
Thousands of balloons will be used for Cherophobia© James Allan / James Allan Photography
“I began to wonder if I was scared of being happy and maybe whether I was taking the piss out of happiness? It’s such a fascinating phobia and it must be a torn state of affairs because if you’re afraid of being happy, the thing that everybody wants is the thing that really scares you.

"The idea of happiness and control is connected to me and I am quite scared of giving up control and a lot of my work is about that.”

For someone who dislikes being out of control, even though her planning and execution is meticulous, Cherophobia will render Lakmaier quite helpless and control will rest with the team supporting her in the space.

There is certainly a tension in the striking image of her disabled body - suspended and vulnerable yet also empowered as she floats above us with this huge bunch of balloons which screams, ‘I am here, I cannot be ignored.’

Sexualising the disabled body

“Maybe it’s kind of arrogant but I’m hoping that Cherophobia will become sort of legendary,” she adds. “I am very aware that I’m playing into the female body being the object of the gaze as well as the sexualising of the disabled body and I’m putting it into the position of voyeurism kind of questioning people’s discomfort with that.

“It kind of comes back to control. Like, is the audience is in control of me or am I in control of the audience? Are they objectifying me or am I objectifying them? I’m hoping people question that when they’re looking at my work.”

Watch a film about the project:

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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I saw the balloons themselves as happiness and the subject being lifted from the ground in their direction but never getting closer and then being stuck, static, never reaching the elusive goal that is there, so close but never to be attained.
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