Episode 020: Balloon Girl
In which we discuss con artists, Brian May, and impermanence
I’ve been watching some classic con artist movies lately. Oceans 11; The Ladykillers; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; The Hustler; The Man Who Would Be King. All great. I’m a sucker for a good con.
A put on.
Ruse, hustle, hoax, deception, scheme.
For my money, there is no better schemer in the history of art than the street artist Banksy. I love the whole thing: secret identities, seemingly random installations, political activism, satire, subversiveness. Following Banksy’s career has been like watching The Sting on a 30-year loop.
Sure, I understand that we probably know who Banksy is at this point, but it has never been confirmed, and I hope it never is. That anonymity is my favorite part about the whole shebang.
So much of Banksy’s art is essential, but let’s talk about what is probably his most enduring work to date, Girl with Balloon.
There isn’t just one Girl with Balloon. The work initially appeared in 2002 in the Shoreditch district of London. Then the version shown here appeared on London’s South Bank at Waterloo Bridge. Neither of them remain.
However, Girl with Balloon (or Girl and Balloon or simply Balloon Girl) has had a long life, appearing in countless places and iterations over the past 20+ years. It’s become something of a Banksy trademark.
My favorite Balloon Girl (and easily my favorite Banksy con, with apologies to Dismaland) is the framed version that sold at auction for £1,042,000 in 2018. As soon as the gavel dropped, the painting was destroyed by a shredder built into the bottom of the frame.
If a supervillain like The Joker were a famous artist, this would happen. Preposterous!
But if there is any question of how tuned in Banksy is to the zeitgeist, just three years after that Balloon Girl was shredded, it sold at auction for 18 times as much under the new name Love is in the Bin. By destroying one work of art Banksy created an entirely new piece. Or pieces.
Did she let go of the balloon on purpose? Or was it an accident?
Since the wind is blowing in her hair, I've always thought that the balloon was lost instead of deliberately set free. Although maybe the wind inspired her to let go, so the heart could be whisked away to inspire someone else.
Do you remember the feeling of losing a balloon as a kid? I remember two simultaneous emotions: the sadness of losing something and the wonder of watching it magically float away.
I think this beat nails that mix of melancholy and marvel. The overall sound is pretty mesmerizing, while the simple repeating cello pattern firmly straddles the line between sorrow and awe.
I also wanted to capture the confusion people have with Balloon Girl. Hence the overlaying parts and patterns that are of different lengths, so they seem to start and end in different places. Is this in 4/4? Or 3/4? Are they three-bar phrases? Or eight?
Finally: the balloon floating away with the rising guitar parts in the middle section and its reprise. This part is admittedly some combination of Brian May's guitar harmonies and the end of “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles. There are five or six individual guitar lines all slowly climbing from low to high, accompanied by random notes until they get to the big chord at the end.
That’s the balloon disappearing. Can you feel it?
One last thing about all of this that I find most fascinating: it all disappears. All of it. Other than the pieces that are hacked off the walls of the buildings on which they were stenciled and sold at auction, [kind of like the tomb raiders we discussed back in “The Garden of Nebamun”], they all go away. Painted over. Worn away by sun and rain.
What I'm doing here will eventually not exist anymore, either. I'm really just hoping for people to enjoy it while it is here. But father time always wins, and both the artists and their art will disappear into the ether someday.
Kind of like a balloon.
Until next week, thanks for reading Polyester City. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment by clicking the link above. If you know anyone who likes Music and Art and Stories [and con artists], which is pretty much everyone, please consider sharing by clicking the link below.