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Eyes in the Sky

“I couldn’t let go of the new vision I gained, so I left my eyes in the skies…

One eye is on the Moon, looking down at myself on Earth;

The other is gazing into Space, seeing things that no one has seen before.”

-Eyes in the Sky

Anna Hoetjes, Eyes in the Sky, 2018. This 8 minute – long quasi-fictional film on display at the exhibition introduces a female narrative into space history in the form of an eyewitness account by Varvara Tsiolkovsky, the wife of a pioneering Russian scientist.

I came to the Floating Utopias exhibition expecting to take many Instagram-friendly photos (which I did).

Momoyo Torimitsu, Somehow, I Don’t Feel Comfortable, 2000


Dawn Ng, Walter, 2010 (Image courtesy of Angeline Chua)

However,  I left the show with a whole new appreciation of how inflatable objects have opened up new technological possibilities throughout history.

Although the first known concept of the hot air balloon dates back to hundreds of years ago, where unmanned hot air balloons, known as kongming lanterns, were used for military signalling, it was only in the eighteenth century that people began to view hot air balloons as a mode of transport. On 19 September 1783, a hot air balloon invented by brothers Joseph-Étienne and Jacques-Michel Montgolfière, carried a sheep, a duck, and a rooster (yes, you read that correctly!) into the air for eight minutes in front of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and 130,000 onlookers.

This was thought to be the world’s earliest documented hot-air balloon and marked the beginning of our fascination with balloons.

The first balloon ascent with animals which took place on 19 September 1783 (Copper etching, produced as C-print on paper)

Floating Utopias explores how this pivotal invention influenced the way we understand the world and our place in it. Divided into five sections, Balloon Fever, Display and Disrupt, Bubble Architecture, Solar Sustainability and Vertical Exploration, each section juxtaposes historical prints and videos with contemporary artworks, including videos, installations, prints and of course, giant inflatables.

Balloons have the transformative ability to dominate a space despite their light, mobile and soft qualities. These cute, huggable inflatables have played significant roles in demonstrations and mass parades since the beginning of the twentieth century and remain very relevant today, as the Trump Baby balloon shows.

Anti-Trump protesters hold up protest signs at the #makesomenoise rally in central London in July 2018. In the background, you can see a small version of the large Trump Baby balloon.

The amazing collection of historical prints displayed throughout the five sections reveals the very human stories of balloons. During the siege of Paris in 1870 and 1871 for example, when all land and sea passages between the city and the rest of France were blocked, balloons were used to carry mail from Paris to other provinces – literally the first air mail service!

Gare d’Orleans used as a workshop for M. Godard’s postal balloons, 1870 (illustration by Charles Fichot reproduced as C-print on paper)

From socialist (and capitalist) mass parades to acts of advocacy for democracy and protest against wars, new fun facts about the uses of balloons abound in these historical prints. Do not miss them!

Building on the foundations of history, a new generation of architects began using inflatable structures in search of new approaches to designing space and alternative ways of living.

If you actually want to experience flying, Tomás Saraceno, a trained architect, has the perfect solution for you. He designed a backpack, the Aerocene Explorer, containing a solar balloon and survival kit which will enable you to launch your own solar balloon. This work seeks to remind us of the utopian vision of emission-free air travel.

Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene Explorer, 2016

As part of the Aerocene project, Saraceno also developed a web application, the Float Predictor, in collaboration with scientists from the Massachusettes Institute of Technology. After keying in your current location and target destination, the Float Predictor will calculate your flight trajectories based on the weather data. Based on these calculations, I ended up more than 8,000 km away from my target destination.  (I guess I won’t be travelling by solar balloons anytime soon).

Even though emission-free travel remains a dream, dreams of space travel have certainly come true. In 1804, prominent Belgian scientist, magician and balloonist Gaspard-Étienne Robert designed a prototype for a vast floating laboratory he named Minerva. Although Minerva was never realized, his vision lives on today as the International Space Station – humanity’s ultimate floating laboratory!

Gaspard-Étienne Robert, Minerva, 1820 (etching, produced as C-print on paper)

The idea of travelling through space brings us to the highlight of the exhibition, the Museum of the Moon. Commissioned by the ArtScience Museum, Luke Jerram’s vast floating sculpture provides a truly immersive experience. The sculpture is created using ultra-high resolution images captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. Lying on the deck chairs under the ‘moon,’ visitors can enjoy the ‘moonlight’ emitted from the work and contemplate its lunar surface in exquisite detail. A surround-sound composition by BAFTA award-winning composer Dan Jones completes this extraordinary experience.

Luke Jerram, Museum of the Moon, 2019

Our love for floating inflatables is perhaps a consciousness that yearns, above all, for transcendence. We dream of flight, space and many more magical things. Some dreams have become reality, some remain unrealized.

But we must continue to dream, for the history of man is built on imagination and dreams.

And this is what Floating Utopias is all about.


Floating Utopias is on at the ArtScience Museum till 29 September 2019. See it with your own eyes before it ends!

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