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HomeLife In the BerkshiresA "Happening" at...

A “Happening” at Naumkeag

A “Happening” took place last month at a Gilded Age, Stanford White-designed Berkshire cottage, attracting bluebloods, socialites and music fans. Naumkeag may never be the same.

There was something new on the horizon at Naumkeag last month, a big something.

Art Impresario Doug Aitken installed a 100-foot-high hot air balloon made of mylar at the property. The reflective material of the balloon was designed to mirror the landscape. What’s in a landscape? According Aitken, we are.

Commissioned by the Trustees, the L.A.-based Aitken created “New Horizon,” a multi-faceted art event that challenges the notion of art in the 21st century. According to The Trustees, one of the great American mythologies is the road trip, and “New Horizon” is a 21st century version of a journey, traveling through the landscape by air. Each stop the balloon touches down becomes a happening. It is both an artwork and an event where ideas, conversation, music and art are shared. The journey creates a continuous, flowing event, encountering unique individuals and providing an insight into the future of our culture.

During the month of July, Aitken’s balloon touched down on six of The Trustee’s properties in Massachusetts: Long Point on Martha’s Vineyard, Holmes Reservation in Plymouth, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, The Crane Estate in Ipswich, Naumkeag in Stockbridge and Field Farm in Williamstown.

“The idea is to have a very distinctive journey—but also a concept bringing it all together, which is the idea of the future,” said Aitken.

“Where we are going as individuals, as a culture, as the environment, and how can we open up a dialogue that is shared?”

Aitken got his answers on Saturday, July 27, during a Garden Party and Naumkeag At Night featuring live music, where approximately 1300 guests partook in the Happening.

Naumkeag, a gilded age mansion in Stockbridge was commissioned in 1884 by Joseph Choate, a New York City lawyer. Designed by landscape architect Stanford White, the 44-room shingle-style mansion with a stunning view of Monument Mountain was named for a Native American tribe that once inhabited Salem, Massachusetts, where Choate spent his youth. Daughter Mabel Choate, a horticulturist, later donated the mansion to the Trustees. Her legacy is a series of garden “rooms” inspired by European and Chinese gardens she visited with her collaborator, landscape designer Fletcher Steele. The gardens were renovated recently and scheduled to be revealed at the Garden Party.

When guests arrived at Prospect Hill on Saturday, July 29, valets drove their cars down the hill that bisects the 44-acre property to a parking lot in an allée of linden trees not far from the end of a pasture where cows were cooling off in a large puddle.

Naumkeag cows cooling off. Photo: Mary A. Nelen

Inside the arched entrance, Mark Wilson, Curator of Collections, was on hand to greet and answer questions. Visitors paused to find their name tags, some consulting with Wilson about the afternoon festivities.

“Balloons are finicky,” said Wilson, a cheerful man in a green blazer. “There is a wind master down there with the balloon crew. He analyzes the layers of wind with software to determine if conditions are right.”

On the terrace, guests sipped cocktails and nibbled on passed appetizers under a canopy, some venturing out to the low stone wall where the gardens that graced Naumkeag’s sweeping lawn were in full bloom. In the place where cows usually dotted the scene were a pick-up truck, a generator and some individuals milling about, some on cellphones.

Balloon crew in the pasture beyond the restored gardens at Naumkeag. Photo: Mary A. Nelen

This prompted some fanning out of people making their way through the curving rose garden toward and down the cobalt blue steps leading to the cutting garden at the bottom of the hill where they discovered the balloon, all 100 feet of it, tethered to the ground.

Guests at the Garden Party view the horizon. Photo:Mary A. Nelen
Garden Party guests fan out to get a better look. Photo: Mary A. Nelen
The balloon is tethered due to lack of wind. Photo: Mary A. Nelen

Back on the terrace the atmosphere was electric. The view of Monument Mountain was upstaged by a stunning, silver orb. A drone floated lazily above while guests mingled and took photos.

By the bar, Doug Aitken was deep in conversation with cellist and activist Yo-Yo Ma who is performing this summer at Tanglewood with the BSO and as part of The Bach Project, a six-continent, two-year tour the cellist has devised in which he performs six suites for unaccompanied cello. He explained that the goal of The Bach Project is to use the common language of music to bring people together in a world of divisiveness.

Doug Aitken, creator of “New Horizen” in discussion with Yo-Yo Ma. Photo: Mary A. Nelen

Other guests included people in linen and straw hats sporting the names of prominent American families on their nametags as well as Russian-American businessman Ilia Bykov sporting a top hat.

Julie Lewit of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Barnbrook Realty of Great Barrington, and Ilia Bykov of Protax Services Inc. of New York and Miami. Photo: Mary A. Nelen

In the spirit of things reflective, a three-dimensional sculpture of mirrored panels graced the stone wall facing the horizon and Hilary Somers Deely, a co-chair of the event, sported mirrored shades.

Hilary Somers Deely, Co-Chair of the Garden Party at Naumkeag . Photo:Mary A. Nelen

As the gathering wound down, members of the band BANG ON A CAN and their crew walked through the terrace and past the curving Rose Garden to an outdoor stage. They were scheduled to perform Terry Riley’s “In C,” a series of short melodic fragments created in 1964, considered by some to be the beginning of minimalist music.

As afternoon turned into evening, a new group of guests began to trickle in with picnic blankets, entering through the terrace and down the hill before stopping to take in the looming balloon.

Naumkeag at Night. Photo: Matthew Healey for The Trustees

When the music started, sound floated and pulsed over the audience while the sky slowly gave way to a streak of pink. The musicians took center stage when streaks of vertical LEDs flooded the area with white light prompting a flurry of picture taking. As the sky grew dark, the balloon revealed a horizon of people, crickets, sky and music.

The horizon is illuminated. Photo: Matthew Healey for The Trustees

One audience member described the happening as a wonderful evening in a big, peaceful crowd.

Aitken’s work was complete.

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