Central Park in the sky. That is what New Yorkers are calling the city’s newest art installation, Air. But for the artist and creator known as Kenzo Digital, 42, the immersive observatory experience is much more.
The dream-like exhibit opened in Manhattan on October 21. It begins underground at One Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Terminal entrance, where an illuminated elevator catapults visitors to the sky. Atop New York’s fourth tallest building at over 1,200 feet, views span from Coney Island all the way to the Bronx Zoo.
Kenzo’s family history began in New York decades ago, when his great uncle, Nam June Paik, relocated from Europe. Paik was the founder of video art. In 1963, he used magnets to alter images on a series of televisions at an exhibit in Germany. His great nephew followed in his footsteps.
Over time, Kenzo’s inspiration shifted, as his experiences drawn from cities like New York, Paris and Tokyo, translated to installations around the world. By his early 30s, his portfolio included projects at the Olympics, and collaborations with top fashion and pop music icons, like Kenzo Paris, Kanye West and Beyonce.
Despite stretches spent near and far, Kenzo has remained strongly connected to New York City. New York is “in many ways a muse that I engage with to program my mind,” he said, adding that “energetically, there is something deeply personal about the act of walking the streets. It is psychologically, emotionally and intellectually the most dynamic and layered life experience.”
Kenzo now considers Air—a New York love letter—to be his “most ambitious and personal project to date,” having said “it is very much centered around the things that have formed my identity.”
The idea for the observatory came from an actual dream—one that persisted for 25 years. In the dream, Kenzo found himself on the top two floors of a circular skyscraper. Mirrors were everywhere. Though the specific story changed with each dream, the dream’s setting would remain the same.
“It was my own kind of homemade meditation routine,” he said. While outside of his chamber as a child, Kenzo would observe New York City and its reaction to adverse weather—blizzards, rainfall and all.
Fast forward to the creation of Air, an oasis where each visitor is the protagonist of their own story. The experience unfolds in five chapters. At Launch (Chapter One), visitors walk down a dark tunnel, as Kenzo seeks to reprogram their senses. With the use of light and sound, an elevator that feels how visitors might imagine a teleportation device would, takes you up to the 91st floor, where a lighted hall mimics sunrise and sunset.
In Transcendence 1 (Chapter Two), visitors are immersed in a near 360-degree view of New York City. Fully mirrored floors, walls and ceilings position people in an Inception-like version of reality, with the road above and the sky below. At night, the colors of sundown are absorbed in a dazzling light show, as observers are faced with their own reflections and new vantage points.
Affinity (Chapter Three) highlights air as a living organism, as the physics of life are turned upside down. Air comes to life as floating silver spheres. Visitors are again confronted by their reflections, which now interact with them not unlike how visitors themselves interact with the exhibit.
Transcendence 2 (Chapter Four) is located on the 92nd floor. In this section, visitors are overlooking Transcendence 1 from a nearly-invisible balcony. By this point, onlookers have fully acclimated to the new world and can connect with newcomers in their shared experience.
The exhibit ends with Unity (Chapter Five), where three-dimensional face-capture imaging allows visitors to see their faces as clouds in the sky.
On sound design, Kenzo said the end product was partially inspired by how he imagines “a crystal blade 1,200 feet in the sky colliding with the power of the sun and wind would sound as time oscillates.” He added that “from an engineering and material science standpoint, what we have built is categorically first.”
The partnership with One Vanderbilt came about when Craig Hatkoff, SL Green Realty board member, reached out to Kenzo. After a coordinated meeting with Marc Holliday, the company CEO, Kenzo had a request—whether he could spend one night on the open-air concrete slab pre-construction.
“I wanted to sleep there in order to concept and get a feel for the space organically. As soon as I arrived on my first visit to the space, it immediately struck me that this was the same vantage point from my dream,” Kenzo said.
When asked about his hopes for the exhibit, the artist expressed his desire to see installations like Air built globally. “I love the idea of people connecting deeply with other cities and their respective citizens in a very disarmed and vulnerable way,” he said.
Kenzo is reaching New Yorkers powerfully. One man in his thirties, miles away from family, shared a video of Affinity with his niece and nephews in Florida. “They couldn’t get enough,” he said, adding “they’ve been begging to fly up ever since. The mom and I have our issues. Oddly, this has brought us closer.”
During the observatory’s soft opening, Kenzo said he spoke to a blind woman, who surrendered herself completely to the immersion. She said that her experience with the silver floating spheres made her feel more alive than ever before in her life. For the first time, she had taken part in a playful experience—a physical experience that did not involve people helping her navigate the seeing world.
“It is a beautiful feeling to put such an abstract concept into the world and to see people understand,” Kenzo said.