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Talking Art From Great Heights: Let Kenzo Digital Help You Fall In Love With New York City All Over Again

Summit One Vanderbilt, in collaboration with artist Kenzo Digital, aims to impress even the most jaded New Yorker.

This is not your typical skyscraper observatory. Visiting Summit One Vanderbilt is a breath of fresh air. Think of your earliest memory of seeing the New York City skyline, combine it with the feeling of floating on air, and you might come close to experiencing the Kenzo Digital art installation called “Air.” The immersive multi-sensory and multi-floor experience begins to build up in the lobby tunnel, but the anticipation never seems to stop. You get whisked up to the 91st floor by a mirrored elevator, accompanied by colorful flashing lights. The dramatic ride could be symbolism for the wild ride we have had (and continue to have) in real life, but then you exit onto the main Air exhibit floor, appropriately named “Transcendence.”

Air, an immersive art installation created by Kenzo Digital for SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, promises to be a mind expanding and wholly unique experience for all those who see it. Courtesy of Summit.

Stepping onto the German-designed annealed glass, installed by Snøhetta, you feel like there is no bottom and you might be levitating. There is a sense of relief, excitement, a bit of fear (if you happen to be afraid of heights), but the breathtaking views make for a pleasant reward. Unlike your typical art exhibit, this permanent installation offers a point of view along with bird’s-eye-views of the city, which include all the classics: Empire State Building, Bryant park, Central Park, George Washington Bridge and the Chrysler Building. The glass invites a lot of natural light and a view of the sky, something we often lack in our cramped city apartments, so really try to spend some time with it and soak it in.

Look down from a balcony onto the main space.

This god-like perspective on the city is an excellent reminder to take a deep breath and rise above your every day problems (even if just for the day). Whether you are sitting, lying down, or walking around, at some point you begin to understand that the space is limitless with artistic potential. What makes this installation special is that no individual visit is alike; as the glass reflects both the inside and outside elements. It is an ever-changing and enlighting experience.

Summit Kenzo Digital Affinity Room is filled with floating silver baloons.

The exhibit does not stop at “Transcendence.” It spills over to another floor, with a balcony that overlooks the main space. From there you make your way to find “Affinity.” The far more intimate mirrored space is filled with round silver balloons that float and float around, making you feel like a kid again. You are invited to play, and believe me when I tell you that it is hard to resist. The dreamlike room invites an emotional response, and for me that meant feeling a childlike sense of freedom.

SUMMIT One Vanderbilt aerial view.

It should be said that Summit stands above another architectural marvel, the Grand Central Terminal, and has 93 floors. In order to truly feel like an immortal god, make sure to experience the last part of the installation, “Ascent”. Ascent is a glass elevator ride, carefully operated and monitored by engineers, that takes you to the highest point of Summit. This is where your imagination really takes flight. You stay inside the glass elevator, which stops at 1,200 feet. I felt like pinching myself. Here is where you might think or say the official slogan known around the world: “I love New York.”

Yayoi Kusama’s silver Clouds on view before you enter the “Affinity” room.
Kenzo Digital’s Air exhibit at Summit, One Vanderbilt.

Air started as a dream that, with a lot of work, ended up coming true. It guides you on an emotional journey by combining lighting (provided by Arup), sound (provided by Joseph Fraioli), and visual effects. Kenzo Digital is an idealist that has accomplished a lot in his life, but I have a feeling he is looking forward to wowing us with more powerful projects in the future. Kenzo being his real name, and Digital a representation of his work, the artist makes it clear that technology is his main driving force.

I spoke to the artist behind the jaw-dropping Air installation, and his answers were very revealing.

PK: What are your early beginnings in the world of art?

KD: I’ve been an artist my entire life, so that is my native lens on life and the world. One of my earliest memories was seeing my great-uncle Nam June Paik’s opening at the Whitney. His work was one of the foundational inspirations for me as the first artist to truly use technology to build worlds and communicate large philosophical concepts. And just being around artists creating had a profound impact on me and my life. It shaped how I see and interact with the world around me. When I was in middle school, I was a graffiti artist, so I was always exploring the city at odd hours and seeing how it changed at night. I began to see the city as an organism, in how it breathes and evolves throughout the day and in its connection to the people who inhabit it. I was really blown away by how much one space can change as well as the different worlds that can exist in the same space.

PK: How did you partner with Summit One Vanderbilt?

KD: I was brought on and began working on the design in September of 2019. The project is a partnership between myself and SL Green, the largest commercial landowner in New York City. Marc Holliday, the CEO of SL Green, and I are deeply invested in the future of New York City. And this project was birthed through that intention of generosity and giving back to the city that is our home. It was an accelerated process with a lot of work before construction began in the Spring of 2020, which was also when the pandemic started. It was intense, and I spent most of 2020 in a CDC suit with a gas mask in an abandoned and empty Manhattan. It was like building an art installation while living inside of a dystopian science fiction film.

Now, as we are beginning to emerge from the pandemic in some way, releasing Air to the public feels synonymous with NYC coming back to life in whatever this new normal is. In many ways Air is a monument to the future, something that points to the future of New York City while unifying people through shared wonder and optimism.

We need healthy outlets to help us process everything that we have experienced over these last two years—loss, grief, isolation—and Air is an unequivocal invitation for people to go back inwards and reflect on what we’ve been through as a collective, and most importantly look towards the future and our individual and collective role in what that will become.

PK: The experience starts with the elevator. What is the feeling you try to evoke here?

KD: The experience actually starts before the elevator with the long dark hallway that leads to the elevators—and that’s intended to be a sensory reset, like a palate cleanser. We’re all rushing around from one thing to another, carrying so much with us, and overloaded with everything going on internally and externally, that we rarely get to fully experience the moment we’re in. The entrance is meant to provide an opportunity to shed all of that, so that visitors can fully experience the unique, immersive form of storytelling that Air offers—an experience of being fully present, of embarking on a journey that’s as much internal as it is external.

While there’s no right or wrong way to experience Air, it is much more than just a cool Instagrammable experience; it’s one where you’re invited to be the main character and to make discoveries not only about the world around you, but about yourself as well, whatever form those revelations might take (the experience itself is meant to be unique to each visitor, even upon revisiting).

And with the elevators, I wanted visitors to really feel that they were leaving this world behind and stepping out into a totally new, unfamiliar one.

PK: How long did this project take, and did you find this work more or less challenging than your other exhibitions?

KD: Air is by far my most ambitious project to date. The first challenge was creative—what is an idea that I believe can truly add value to the city and give back in a way that is authentic, actual, and deeply meaningful? All of my work is about personal transformation, and this once-in-a-lifetime canvas required something truly extraordinary. Air is my attempt to give back to New York City and celebrate the innovation, creativity, and chaos that is part of the DNA of the city. At its core, it’s a concept I’ve been working on my entire life (it’s inspired by a recurring dream I’ve had since I was a kid, and I created the first iteration of Air in my closet when I was 14 years old).

There were many obstacles to bringing Air to life—construction started at the beginning of the pandemic before we even really knew what Covid was or how much it was going to impact our lives.

My goal with Air was really ambitious from the start—how do we evolve storytelling and bring a new medium to life when so much of art has become just content and has really lost all intended meaning behind it? How do we get visitors engaged and truly present in a world where we’re all constantly being pulled in 20 different directions, where it seems like everything is competing for our attention, and we’re all overloaded and exhausted? My aim was to make a living entity that inspires a journey back to yourself for those who come to Air with an open mind and a willingness to really engage with what the experience offers. Air is about bridging the past and the future for me, a revival if you will, just like what we collectively are going through now post-pandemic.

PK: What do you want visitors to feel as they move through the space or what is it you want them to take away?

KD: Air is intended to facilitate a mind-expanding, personal journey of self-reflection. At the same time, it is a combination of many things that are not commonly experienced together. It is both cerebral and joyous, maximally engaging as it is distracting. The concept of reflection is physically built into Air, so that the journey is unique to each visitor, each moment in time, with the story unfolding in infinite ways through nature, weather, and your own personal psychological and emotional disposition. Every person who steps into Air is invited to embark on an existential journey of self-discovery, of getting to know themselves and the world around them on a deeper level, while becoming more attuned to their inner life and grounded in their place in the universe.

It is also something that is extremely connective. I believe what we have built is the most joyous and humane place that has ever existed in the history of New York City.

That’s what I really want, to encourage self-reflection, connection to other humans, and a return to nature, whatever that means to each visitor, whatever form that may take. As humans, we’ve created a world of duality, especially here in NYC. In the “concrete jungle,” the ways in which we’ve shaped our world are in stark contrast to nature. And yet we too are part of nature, so in that duality also exists a unity, a harmony, a blending of the natural and built world.

Air is a love letter to exactly that—to all that NYC is (that’s why it literally reflects NYC back at itself). It holds a mirror up to our city and ourselves. What visitors take from that is entirely up to them, and how they reconnect with their home and see themselves in the future of this city.

PK: In your statement you say that Air compels you to live in the present moment. Do you think this is something the world needs more of right now?

KD: Yes, absolutely, for our own mental well-being. It’s so easy to lose track of what is real and what is really important. We’re constantly battling sensory overload to the point that it’s easy to become closed off to the world around us. And with so many screens, emails, messages, and notifications competing for our attention, it’s no wonder we’re chronically distracted and burned out. Finding ways to reset, ground ourselves, pay attention to how we’re feeling, and reconnect with nature is vital.

Air is really an invitation to go inward and figure out what’s truly important to you—what you want to spend more of your time and energy on as well as what you want a little less of in your life. The truth is, what you’ll discover is personal and specific for each person, but I do believe that if you really engage and commit to this journey and to being present, you’ll walk away from Air with a lot more than if you go through the motions or get distracted with shooting Instagram content.

PK: Do you think immersive art is the future?

KD: It’s most certainly one future path, and the one that I’ve been dedicated to exploring for the past decade-plus—well before it was in style. As technology advances, opportunities to create truly immersive art—new worlds that we can inhabit—will proliferate. That may mean physical and technological experiences, like Air, and even virtual experiences, like in the metaverse.

Stories are the very fabric of our culture. Naturally, the next step in the progression of storytelling is becoming part of the story yourself. And that’s exactly what immersive art offers. Air is one of several things that I’m working on that will truly push the boundaries and reveal what is possible to people through the expansion and evolution of storytelling in physical space.

PK: As a New Yorker, did working on this exhibition change the way you personally view the city?

KD: Certainly in creating it, but even just spending as much time in Air as I have has had a profound impact on my relationship to the city.

Building Air has reconfirmed my love for NYC and made me even more determined to really showcase what makes this city so special. NYC is such a unique place, and I really want Air to be another way of experiencing it and all that it has to offer.

This is a permanent installation that will grow and change with the city. As the skyline changes, grows, and is reshaped, Air will congruously do the same as it mirrors it back. One of the things that’s so incredible about Air is that no two visits will ever be the same. Just like the city itself, you can go back and experience something totally new and different each time.

PK: Tough questions but..How can we ensure that inspiring art like this gets to be seen by everyone, not just those who can afford it?

KD: This is such an important question. It can be challenging because as artists, we rarely get a say in what tickets cost. I’m really glad that SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, where Air resides, is committed to making art accessible, especially to our local communities as well as veterans and their families. Committing to that belief, that art is for everyone (and to the fact that we share this city and this planet with one another), is crucial for art to thrive. And Air is very much intended to be the most democratized expression of art for everyone. In many ways the art is the energy of the combination of people that are in the space, and it’s actually more about the effect of the unique physical context of Air on the people that gives the space a unique power.

In creating Air, I wanted to build something that could be enjoyed by people of all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all ages. I particularly wanted it to be something for people who aren’t necessarily well-versed in art, who may feel like art is inaccessible or closed off or are intimidated by it.

Air is also built to be accessible to those with disabilities as well as anxiety. This includes full wheelchair accessibility and a path of non-reflective glass panels (instead of mirrors) spanning the experience so that anyone who isn’t comfortable with full reflection—for any reason—can still enjoy Air.

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