Jeppe Hein's Mirrored Balloons | Materials Hub
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Mirrored Balloons

Jeppe Hein's

You are unlikely to have encountered Chromium in its isolated, pure state. More likely, for this steely grey and lustrous metal, would have been your encounter with its prominent alloy–Stainless Steel– and Chrome (or Chrome-plated) objects, where a mirror-like coating of the metal has been applied to a surface through electroplating. There are also readily available chrome paints today, which can be sourced by the canister. Together, these two applications of Chromium–Stainless steel and chrome plating– comprise 85% of the commercial use of this material.

To better understand why artists, designers, engineers, and manufacturers of products–from cars to furniture– are so fascinated with this material and use it in the alloyed or plated state, it is useful to understand its properties.

The metal, which has a high melting point, resists tarnishing and corrosion, mainly due to the formation of a protective, insoluble oxide coating when exposed to oxygen. It can be highly polished and achieves a mirror-like finish, with polished Chromium reflecting almost 70% of the visible spectrum and nearly 90% of infrared light.

The metal is essential to the discovery and production of Stainless steel–where the addition of 10 to 30% of Chromium (typically a minimum of 10.5%) makes the steel highly lustrous, and resistant to both corrosion and discoloration. Many artists and designers rely heavily on stainless steel to achieve the desired longevity and finessed appearance of their products. Among them is the artist Jeff Koons, who uses inflated stainless steel to create his ‘balloon animal’ sculptures, two of which hold the record for the highest auction price of a work by a living artist. Koons’ USP is the reproduction of banal objects (such as toys, and balloon animals) in stainless steel with a mirror-finish, imbuing them with value and a highly luxurious quality via material and craftsmanship.

On the other hand, creatives like Danish artist Jeppe Hein, capitalize on Chromium in its plated or coated state. With Chromium or Chrome plating,  a layer of Chromium is electroplated on the outside of a plastic or metal object. It is used for both decorative and industrial purposes. With decorative applications, chrome-plating is used to create the desired, mirror-finish aesthetic, as well as to strengthen the object to which the chromium is electroplated.

The most significant differences between Chrome plating and using an alloy such as stainless steel are the composition (plating uses only Chromium), the weight–Chrome plated objects are much lighter–and the expense, where chrome plating is much cheaper than sourcing stainless steel. Chrome-plated objects are, however, more lustrous and less durable.

Think of these qualities and differences when looking at Jeppe Hein’s project ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ seen here–an installation of 6 balloons made of glass fiber-reinforced plastic, coated with mirror-like Chrome, and united with a birch stem. ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ is part of a more extensive body of works–all mirrored balloons–created by Hein for exhibitions and even a metro station globally, where the balloons hug the bottom of ceilings, gently moving, or appear to be tied down with string and ready to fly away. Due to their shape and reflective surface, the balloons produce a distorted perspective of the surrounding space, similar to a fish-eye view. This creates a pleasurable moment of engagement for visitors–with the artwork, with the space,  and with each other when they catch each others’ eye on the surfaces of the ballons.

Hein capitalizes on two qualities of Chrome plating–the glossy mirror-like finish, which produces highly interactive reflections, and its extremely lightweight nature, which allows the balloons to float airily below ceilings or suspend lightly from ties. The balloons have a dense metallic appearance while being incredibly lightweight, a contradiction and feat that is only possible by plating with Chromium.

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