Blow-up shapes and structures make a valuable medium for edgy and interactive art.
When Los Angeles based artist Paul McCarthy installed two works in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the widely known provocateur hired a company that specializes in inflatables for branding to create a flowerpot of geraniums to cover the museum’s roofline. The blow-up vinyl-coated nylon flowers and leaves stretched 350 feet long and 60 feet high.
“Paul uses inflatables to draw attention to the rest of his exhibition,” says Mark Bachman, founder of Bigger Than Life in San Diego, Calif. “We have done several million dollars’ worth of inflatables for him. We did one for the roof of New York’s Whitney Museum that was up for six months.” For that work, McCarthy re-envisioned Henry Moore’s iconic marble and bronze figures as an inflatable with “holes.”
“We constructed it in such a way that it had tunnels running through it,” Bachman says.
For yet another McCarthy project, Bigger Than Life created an 80-foot-tall, 110-foot-long Balloon Dog to parody Jeff Koons’s famous 10-foot-tall, 12-foot-long stainless steel sculpture. Exhibited at Frieze New York in 2013, McCarthy’s version reportedly sold for almost $1 million.
“It was Paul’s way of saying, ‘My dog is bigger than your dog,’” Bachman says, chuckling at the thought. “We also made 23 6-foot-tall editions for collectors.”
(Art followers may note that Koons also has worked with inflatables as his media. Most well known is a pink bunny, but it stood only 32 inches high.)
Dreams to realities
Landmark Creations of Burnsville, Minn., worked with prominent artist David Byrne of Talking Heads fame to inflate a digitally printed globe—measuring 48 feet in diameter and 19 1/2 feet tall—that was compressed under a bridge at New York’s High Line park, which sits over a former rail line. Fans kept the globe inflated for its two-week exhibition. Those who approached heard low-frequency pulses emitted from audio equipment inside the inflatable.
Working with Philadelphia-based artist Tristin Lowe on a 50-foot-long Mocha Dick whale, Landmark provided the vinyl-coated nylon internal structure and The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (where the inflatable whale was exhibited) provided an outer layer of white felt that included three-dimensional barnacles.
“While many artists with an idea can search online to find manufacturers, often it is the manufacturer with a proven track record and strong reputation that gets the project,” says Stephanie Meacham, Landmark’s vice president of operations.
New Zealand’s Canvasland has made some half dozen interactive inflatables for countryman/artist David Cross—ranging in size from 1 square foot to structures with so much fabric that they weigh up to a ton.
“Our work with David involves a fair amount of discussion to understand what he has in mind,” says Brendan Duffy, managing director. “I convert that into what is practical. Then we agree on what is achievable, realistic and safe. His Level Playing Field is a perfect example. To produce a unit where participants were playing inside the unit as well as on top of it at the same time demanded significant safety considerations.”
Canvasland also creates inflatables for staging of the annual World of WearableArt® international design competition in
“One year, we designed and delivered an inflatable tomato 5 meters in diameter that was designed to slowly deflate on the stage as part of the theatrics of the show. The next year, we made a set of droplets 5 meters long with a base sphere measuring 1 meter in diameter,” Duffy says.
Doron Gazit formed Air Dimensional Design Inc. of North Hollywood, Calif., to provide inflatables for event décor. But those visiting his company’s website will find a Smithsonian magazine cover story from August 2000 with photos of his art installations juxtaposing inflatable tubes with outdoor environments.
“I love large scale, I love nature and I use different kinds of plastic resins and gauges to create installations,” he says. “Thin ones are delicate and follow the current of the wind. That’s how I started my Sculpting the Wind series. I call it ‘visualizing the invisible.’”
Gazit had multiple installations at Nevada’s Burning Man in 2012, including Sculpting the Wind and Sun and Wind Dialog. For the latter, he used black tubes, letting the wind inflate them horizontally and then waiting for the sun to heat the air in the tubes so they rose vertically. He also has used blowers to inflate 500-foot-long, heavy-duty-gauge tubes rigid enough to wrap onto towers or buildings and to lay across land and water.
Since 2015, Gazit has been working on installations of his Red Line Project, in which he uses a red tube as a metaphor for blood veins, in an effort to bring awareness to climate change and “man’s misuse of the environment.” He debuted the project by laying the tube across sinkholes at the Dead Sea in Israel (his native country). Subsequent installations have included on the water next to Alaska’s Knik Glacier, along the water and salt flats of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and through the limbs of burnt forest trees in California. He next plans to take the Red Line Project to an Amazon rain forest and central Asia’s Aral Sea. Although the tubes are on-site temporarily (usually a couple of hours), Gazit has them photographed and videographed.
After building his first walk-in inflatable in 1985, Alan Parkinson of Nottingham, U.K., began collaborating with dance and theater companies to create “structured activities” inside his Eggopolis. In 1992, his inflatable environment toured the United Kingdom. The next year, he founded Architects of Air.
Housed in a 4,000-square-foot former textile workshop, the company employs six full-time workers and temporary staff for world tours of its five “luminaria”—each a maze of tunnels, relaxation alcoves and domes rising up to 10 meters and covering up to 1,000 square meters of ground.
“Our clients are mainly festivals of art; cultural centers and, increasingly in the United States, universities,” Parkinson says.
The main body of the PVC-based luminarium requires a material whose primary characteristic is color transmission.
“There don’t exist unreinforced materials on the market with the color transmission and building-standard fire retardance we need, so we have material specially produced for us,” Parkinson says. “We use some off-the-peg materials, such as Ferrari Précontraint.”
Daily fees for AOA’s luminaria range from 2,000 to 4,000 euros, depending on the context and duration of the event. Additional fees cover transport costs as well as travel, accommodations and per diems for two to four “exhibition managers.” Presenters also cover a technical rider that includes power, crew, barriers, stewards, signage, security and promotion; but they retain all box-office revenue.
“Exhibition managers from Architects of Air know how to set up the structure, but more important is their expertise in event management and supporting the presenter in giving the public the optimum experience,” Parkinson says.
Sections of the luminaria are zipped together, and the structures are deflated each evening.
“Normally, the luminaria are lit simply by the light of day passing through the translucent elements. It is one of the beauties of the structures that their installation requirements can be so minimal,” Parkinson says. “Sometimes presenters want to operate at night. Then they are obliged to provide lighting outside the structure.”
Architects of Air has built more than 20 luminaria of various designs.
“The majority of what we’ve built has been cut up and sent to recyclers,” Parkinson says. “We measure lifespan in terms of days of exhibition. Generally, we expect a structure will last for at least 200 days of exhibition. We have an eight-year-old structure that is in good condition because it has toured infrequently, whereas another structure built four years ago has long since been recycled because its intensive touring well exceeded the optimum 200 days.
“We’re always thinking of the next structure and new forms that could frame the light differently,” Parkinson continues. “We have initiated a smaller-scale project designed to operate more locally in Europe that will serve community groups and schools for people with special needs. We also are developing a workshop aimed at students and the general public that gives people the experience of designing and building their own inflatable structures.”