The display window of Heima Store in LRI Design Plaza is all about Arlene Sy’s first exhibit of hand-drawn illustrations. Entitled Inflated Dreams, this collection couldn’t be ignored despite its small size of five pieces. It might have been the delicate colours and lines of the works, or maybe it was the fact that it played around with the image of balloons, and women. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Two works seem cliché in their use of balloons as clothing, but what makes them unique is Sy’s ability to interweave such an obviously avant-garde idea with women’s faces that speak of so much more. In “Airier Than Thou” balloons in pink hues are worn around the body, a seeming random creation of a dress that’s bulky as it is formless. Here, the woman seems to be in action, hands on her waist, looking away from the camera and in the direction that her body’s angled towards. A cape seems to fly from her shoulder and disappears into the canvas’ edge, a strong black and white line that’s lightning-like and which contrasts with the bright round happiness of the balloons. There is a sense of flight here, of being carried by the balloons to elsewhere.
In “Light Headed” a bunch of balloons in various colours and designs make up a hat, the form of which is reminiscent of those that the members of the Royal family wear. That hat is about as big as the woman’s face drawn close-up, looking questioningly into the camera as if she need not be captured in this way. One hand rests against her neck; it holds a lollipop, that could be a balloon, that could be a lollipop. The lightness of this illustration is in this truth: if balloons were on your head, would you feel them at all?
An exhibit such as Sy’s wouldn’t be complete without the standard bunch of balloons held in one’s hand, reminding us of how high the sky is. In Sy’s hands though, this is rendered differently with the image of a girl with stringy hair, blush and lipstick, in a black and white striped tube top, holding in one hand a bunch of balloons that seem to fill the ceiling of the canvas. The contrast in color highlights what is about joy versus what is about stability, the sky versus the ground. And with the title “Bearable Lightness” Sy is able to make this less about cliché, and more about this: some lightness can be unbearable, where this one isn’t.
“Tread Lightly” meanwhile is farthest from being conventional or usual. Here, the balloons still seem to be in flight, but are drawn on the bottom of the canvas. A pair of feet wearing striped stockings is tiptoeing on the surface of the balloons, highlighting a struggle between the one above and below, with the feet being pulled down and the balloon being pulled up. Yet there is lightness here, as the feet refuses to break through the balloons, making the existence of both elements in the picture stable and powerful, a struggle that’s found balance. Maybe because of the pale hues of the balloons, maybe because all these works are on a white canvas, this just seems possible given the rest of Sy’s works in this exhibit. Or maybe this is all in the dreaming.
Inflated space, as space
Because this is ultimately an exhibit that dreams, given the way it handles the notion of balloons and air and lightness. This dreaming is taken to another level in Sy’s “Happy Birthday” which surprises in its use of the inflated balloon. Five different balloons surround and encompass a woman drawn from the shoulders above. Her angular face, tense lips, an almost frown on her forehead, a tense neck, and a gaze that’s strong and unwavering, distinctly contrasts with the delicateness of the balloons that surround this woman. It takes a while to realize that the woman is inside one of the inflated balloons, and her face doesn’t look at all like it is suffering for it. Instead this woman’s strong face becomes about resistance and endurance, in the face of what is impossible to survive. Or do in real life.
But we are reminded: this is about inflated dreams, and in Sy’s hands this isn’t just about balloons and its usual representations. Here, balloons are shown to be about the air within and without it, about being lighter than air and larger than life, about changing us by default because it necessarily invokes a certain kind of happiness that’s reminiscent of childhood. But most importantly, here Sy proves that you don’t need huge canvasses and heavy dollops of colour to make art, all you need is an imagination that can take flight and hands that will bring it to life, in all its delicateness, in all its airiness, in all its light.