Metro, Featured Column

Spaces of Hope and the Meaning in a Red Balloon

When I was younger, my mom showed me an old French movie called The Red Balloon. So many years later, I don’t remember much of the movie’s plot—I think he lost the balloon in the end—but certain images of a scruffy young boy carrying around a perfect red balloon have stayed with me. Maybe it’s just me, but over the years I have developed a certain affinity for the idea of giant red balloons. Something about their bright color and gleaming surface is inextricably linked to the hopeful and lighthearted joys of being a kid.  

In fact, I think that this simple object—a giant red balloon—should be the worldwide symbol for hope. Not the popular choice of a dove in flight, or a circle without end, but a red balloon silhouetted in front of a bright-blue sky.

But after wandering through the Greenway’s Dewey Square Park, I was shocked to discover that I am far from being the only one linking this seemingly random object with such a tricky emotion.

Located in between Boston’s Waterfront and Fort Point areas, Dewey Square lies just past South Station. Much to what can only be the delight of the business people who work in many the nearby offices, the bustling square often fills with Boston’s trendiest food trucks when lunch rolls around. The square also contains a giant building that features a smooth 70 by 70 foot concrete wall on the back. This wall, which is shaped like a giant rectangle with half a circle protruding from the upper-left-hand corner, is also the perfect canvas.

Greenway officials first took advantage of this unconventional canvas in 2012, when they worked with the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to cover the space with an ultimately controversial mural by the artistic duo Os Gemeos. But after a little over a year, the mural fell victim to the passage of time and the city’s harsh climate, and officials replaced the work.  

The cycle has continued over the past years, with a new mural gracing the building’s surface each fall. Last year, it was visually straightforward—the entire wall space, painted a bright blue, featuring the words ‘A TRANSLATION FROM ONE LANGUAGE TO ANOTHER’ in bright-red block letters. But this year, there is not a straightforward aspect of the mural to be found.

Titled Spaces of Hope, the surrealist Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo painted the Greenway’s fifth—and current—Dewey Square mural last October. While the work was underway, Bostonians could watch the mural come to life before their eyes.

When you see the mural for the first time and still don’t fully know what you’re looking at, it might just make your head spin. It looks like someone removed the back wall entirely, exposing the inside of the large concrete building for all of Boston to see. In the art world, it is a ‘trompe l’oeil’ work, a kind of painting that fools the eye into thinking that the image on the canvas is real. But instead of the real-life interior you might expect—maybe something like an industrial storage space—the mural depicts a dimly lit room filled with life-sized people.

These figures, many of whom stand in the building’s shadowy interior, each hold something in their hand, and they seem to be waiting in an unbelievably long line to ascend the short spiral staircase that hovers in the center of the building.

As you follow the figures, your eyes will travel upward, following the twists of the staircase until it comes to an end directly under a hole hollowed out in the roof of the building. The large hole shines light onto those waiting on the staircase, revealing that the object grasped in each figure’s hand is a red balloon. At this point, you might also notice the gigantic red balloon escaping through the hole in the ceiling, leaving the dark room and entering the light-blue sky.

Of course, this is all fake—a meticulously-crafted work of art. But when you see it, there’s something about it that’s more than just beautiful.

Maybe this something involves a feeling that I cannot help but believe the mural triggers within each viewer. Because at the end of the day, don’t we all just want to float off into the sky, gripping the fragile string of a perfect red balloon?

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

January 19, 2017