On a rainy night last week, I climbed gingerly up a ladder and stepped into a red structure hanging like a balloon from a tree, deep in the woods of Holt Hall in Norfolk. The balloon began to expand as if by magic, its sides unfurling like petals; I lay down and the sky was visible through a porthole above me. There was a strange, soothing singing; a hand and face appeared at the porthole, and a smiling woman dressed in a kimono descended, set out four cups and saucers, and offered me tea.
A cross between a pop-up hotel, an art installation, a performance and a retreat, AirHotel has just embarked on its UK premiere at the Norfolk and Norwich festival. The project is the brainchild of Time Circus, a collective of Belgian artists whose previous installations include a fairground where the rides are powered by the audience, and (currently in development in Antwerp) a sustainable floating village.
AirHotel’s seven mobile structures, made from recycled materials, sleep between two and six people. They are beautiful and playful, like something designed by a mad professor with lots of help from a very imaginative child. The Love Nest looks as if some mythical bird has fashioned an outsize nest; El Ambassador, where I eventually ended up spending the night, is a cocoon that sways in the wind. Inside each room there are mosquito nets, embroidered linen, nightlights and notebooks in which to record your dreams.
“We think of ourselves more as scenographers of the imagination than theatre-makers,” explains producer Sara Dandois. “As we were building, we began to wonder whether where you slept would affect your dreams. Does sleeping in mid-air make your dreams more exciting?”
There is certainly something very dreamlike about the whole experience. You might be invited to take a turn in the ecological Wellness Machine, to guest at the staff disco, or to hear a lecture on the theory of “too muchism”. “People only stay one night,” says Dandois. “But some of them turn up with enough luggage for two weeks, laden down with phones, iPads, iPods.” Guests are permitted just one string bag of possessions.
Was the quality of my dreams improved by a night in the AirHotel? To be honest, on a wild and particularly rain-soaked night, with no other humans on site (I was the first guest), I barely slept a wink.
But the morning was different: the milkman had been, and as I started picking my way across the mud in search of civilisation, my spirits soared. A fox and a deer ran past, and I felt the exhilaration of someone who had survived a mad adventure that I will be embellishing for years to come.