I could be mistaken, but it seems that more and more artists have been delving into the use of inflatables in recent years. These typically colourful, oversized and playful works – could they deal with anything else (well maybe – please read on) – present a visual feast for the eyes and frequently invite the body’s participation.
Look around and you’ll see that all kinds of characters and subject matter have been given inflated status. They range from cutesy Pokémon figures to Pawel Althamer‘s less than flattering nude self portrait.
Inflatables are not a particularly recent innovation. They’ve been with us for a long time. Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, for example, might be considered one of the older art works made using this technique. The installation dates from 1966. The technique, of course, was not originally used for art. The idea of using inflatables goes back centuries. People already inflated animal skins for use as floats in ancient times. Air bags were used for making music long before artists harnessed the idea for sculpture. Depictions of the bagpipe have been found in the Middle east that date from as early as 1000 BC.
Surely the Hindenburg disaster rates as the most memorable event involving an inflated object. Speaking of fire… It was also rumoured that Pink Floyd set large inflated animals alight over outdoor stadiums as part of their In the Flesh (Animals) tour in North America back in 1977. The Rolling Stones opted for something a little different for their Tour of the Americas in 1975. The stage featured an inflatable phallus.
The popularity of inflatable outdoor Christmas decorations has grown immensely in the USA and elsewhere in the last one and a half decades. The greater availability of production facilities has likely fueled interest in the medium’s use. Jimmy Kuehnle‘s humourous Detroit Inflatable Suit Performance of 2009 (see below) offers one example of what has been done.
Kuehnles costumes recall the exuberant combination of colour, energy and movement of some of Pat Oleszko‘s wonderfully wacky creations. Though she originally sewed and stuffed the plumped up costumes used in her solo performances, the scope of her projects gradually expanded, as did their scale. Inflatables, naturally, found a place in her oeuvre.
Many more examples of artists’ recent projects can be found on Internet. Searching will turn up a host of images that range from Jeff Koons’ chrome dog, which graced the 2007 edition of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the humongous pile of poop Paul McCarthy dropped in Hong Kong in 2013. It could be described as an extravaganza of oversized kitsch.
The bouncy castle subgenre has also morphed into multiple variations. The briefest of surveys reveals the genesis of ancient monuments, a skyscraper and assorted hybrids – just check out Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege 2012, Jim Rick’s Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen 2010, Jon Sasaki’s Bouncy Highrise 2015 or Andy Best & Merja Puustinen’s Empty Stomach 2009 to get an idea of what artists have been doing.
Tomás Saraceno’s On Space Time Foam 2012 takes ideas of viewer participation and the bouncy castle into an altogether separate realm. This huge clear inflatable structure plays with air pressure so that people’s movement continuously alters their perspective of the structures of both the inflatable and the space in which it is set.
But it’s not all fun and games. There’s also a serious side to inflatable art. The Truth Booth, for example, is a large inflatable video recording booth that was introduced in Galway, Ireland in 2011 and has since made its way to Afghanistan, South Africa and the United States.
Produced by Cause Collective members Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks and Hank Willis Thomas, this speech bubble offered visitors the opportunity to say what they thought the truth is. Pouring through the statements, we see that there are many truths: The truth is that we are poor. The truth is apparently we are tired of freedom. The truth is I want to lie. The truth is, inhale this cigarette, 20 more years and I’m dead. The truth is we live in a beautiful world. The truth is we have no idea how good we can be.
The truth is that the responses touch upon all kinds of subjects. They are funny, personal, introspective, fearful, melancholic, even sorrowful. Factor in the speakers’ sex, age and location, and their words become incredibly poignant.
Poignancy is a quality that also suffuses Dragana Jurisic‘s photographs. Though not an inflatable-art-kind-of-artist, the journey she made through her homeland – the former Yugoslavia – allowed her to re-experience a place she no longer knows. This resulted in an incredibly powerful portfolio of visual metaphors exhibited under the title YU: The Lost Country. The image below presents an example of that series.
Contrasting the setting’s verdancy with an abandoned and entangled group of balloons sited next to a damaged sign that directed visitors to boat tours, the composition is intensely bittersweet. It speaks of the land’s history, of the conflicts and contradictions embodied in its present state. Objects that once enticed people with the promise of joy and adventure, now signify confusion, abandonment, debilitation and misuse.
One final and significant aspect of inflatable art is that its presentation is – often for practical reasons – short lived. It can be difficult to maintain air pressure, protect them from sharp objects and control the influence strong winds. Moreover, exposure to fluctuating external conditions contributes to the degradation of the rubber and plastic components used in their production. Sadly, many objects will eventually disintegrate.
So eventually, every event comes to a close. And when the party’s over, it’s over. The plugs will be unplugged and the fans turned off. Then the bags of air will deflate and they’ll be packed and put in storage to wait for the next potential reiteration.