The heart floats just above reach. It is there for you to grab, if you have the means.
You don’t reach a balloon by making an impression on it. You don’t get through to it. You reach it more literally, by coming in contact with it. And yet, the balloon is a symbol of associations; calling to mind many life instances. The words “There is always hope”, stencilled on the right edge, make the surface meaning transparent.
The girl stretches her hand. Time stops, but, you feel the upward movement. The unswerving helium in the balloon has nothing but the northerly direction in its makeup. It is what makes it tick. Every girl likes flitting between wanting to hold it and wanting to let it go and see it become tinier and tinier before it disappears into the sky. But, letting the heart go, knowing it doesn’t want to stay, tugs at an empty hole inside, that wants to contract and stretch the surrounding tissue of hope.
One of Banksy’s girls flies with balloons. She lives the fantasy, but none of her balloons have a heart. One of his heart balloons is caught in barbed wire. It is too close to tragedy for comfort. But, it is the tenuous excitement of holding a balloon that means for itself to vanish into the sky that I find most enticing.
Now the heart stands wounded and bandaged in New York. It is still both practicing and defying the laws of physics. What might have caused the wound; who fixed it up; why won’t it fly away; and why is it still within reach? The girl is gone!
As most graffiti artists fulminate against Banksy and the whole enterprise supporting his illegal activities (including authorities), he stands taller than the rest of his kind and represents them, perhaps without intending to, one can never say. But when we express disbelief as other graffiti artists vandalise Bansky’s art, we discredit Banksy and everything graffiti stands for; and we do so in the very sanctum sanctorum of street art. New York is where Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Poster Boy, Revs, El Celso, SAMO, and every artist with a street number in his nickname, who reached for the rooftops or for the platforms of subway stations, or boasted of street galleries, created the Mecca of graffiti art. And then there are some hooligans who charge a fee just for a peek at Banksy’s graffiti. They add one more dimension to the dialogue on the legitimacy of street art. In the mean time, Banksy is as visibly elusive as the balloon. But, I think the really banged up protagonist in this story is the girl. Who is she? In spite of all the artwork being white-washed overnight, and the judge declaring its doom, I hope it is not 5 Pointz.
However you see it, hope is never in letting go of either the girl or the balloon! Banksy's spray-painted, floating bubble-lettering says he agrees. (Listen to the October 31st audio guide).
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!