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In the last few weeks, Paul McCarthy has catapulted into the public imagination as the infamous artist firmly behind Paris’s ill-fated “Tree” (aka #pluggate). And while the public artwork may have attracted all types of attention for his current exhibition in Paris, Chocolate Factory, and won the support of a wide array of high-profile personalities, including the French President, we were curious to know more about the people responsible for manufacturing McCarthy’s inflatable creations.
Following our punny reporting over “Tree,” Greg Favish, VP of Sales and Business Development for the Bigger Than Life (BTL) manufacturing company, contacted Hyperallergic to chat about the company’s proud association with the artist.
“Paul McCarthy has been a long standing client and friend of Bigger Than Life … and it was our team that he trusted to build and install this piece of artwork for the opening of his exhibit in Paris. As you are well aware the ‘Tree’ exhibit has reached momentous exposure beyond what we expected,” Favish said.
Usually called upon in the service of advertising and marketing, BTL, boasting that “no challenge is too big,” has, for the past 20 years, been making Guinness Book of World Record-sized inflatables for a myriad of brands.
BTL is very proud of all the attention — negative and positive — that ‘Tree’ received during its brief stint in Place Vendôme. “I’ve been working with Paul for 15+ years,” said BTL President Mark Bachman during a phone interview. “He’s a fascinating man.”
I asked Favish what goes into producing giant inflatables for McCarthy as opposed to his other clients:
He’s flexible and accommodating, and willing to discuss the realities of what he wants to achieve. Corporations each have their own personalities as well, but anytime that a “team” exists as part of a project there are inevitable challenges in satisfying multiple parties wants and needs.
Alluding to that very flexibility, Bachman described the special charm which McCarthy brings to the creative endeavor — working with failure, as he puts it.
Take the Whitney Museum piece BTL worked on for McCarthy. It was a large inflatable on top of a large urban building. It had to be tethered, and the engineers planned on a certain type of strapping that proved to be a brilliant shade of yellow, which was far too visible from the ground. The piece had been called “Henry Moore Bound” but when McCarthy saw the tethers, he decided to keep them in place and re-dubbed the work “Henry Moore Bound To Fail.”
When projects begin, McCarthy provides various guides to the BTL team to help them realize his vison. “For the Kunst Flowers (Haus der Kunst) he gave us a model, and for other works, like some of his puppets he gave us drawings to follow, and for ‘Tree’ he gave us a shopping bag filled with plugs,” Bachman explains.
“With the initial projects, Paul was quite involved with oversight from the working drawings to the final production,” says Favish. “As we’ve completed so many projects, he is quite confident in our ability to produce what he has imagined.”
Universal to all of BTL’s mega-inflatables, are technical issues like “wind loading” that bring the manufacturer into partnership with outsourced engineers. “I’ve been doing this since 1981. So I know what we need,” Bachman says. “I just can’t do the calculations, the math. That’s what the engineers are for.”
Sometimes, the engineering goes awry. In the summer of 2008, um, shit went wrong. One of McCarthy’s mega-inflatables, “Complex Shit,” which is the size of a suburban house, broke free of its moorings on the grounds of the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, Switzerland. The runaway sculpture managed to tear down a power line, smash a greenhouse window, and another window at a children’s home before it was flushed down from the sky.
Even after engineering and testing, the final installation, Favish explains, can be equally complex and frustrating, involving zoning challenges, strict engineering standards that are often designed for permanent structures, accounting for political influences and multiple agency coordination, as well as historic building preservation, not to mention other factors.
“Tree was not given final approval for installation into Place Vendôme until less than a week prior to the target date. Public safety was a huge concern, and central to that was the possibility of high winds disturbing the inflatable. We went around and around with the prefecture about ’emergency deflation procedures’ and finally agreed to staging a Bigger Than Life employee in an apartment within 5 minutes walking distance for the duration of the showing. We arranged for a local phone number and he was on call 24/7 for the showing, as were additional staff from the Monnaie [de Paris venue].”
Lest you think BTL is only known for their work with artist Paul McCarthy, here is a sampling of some of the other giant attention-grabbers made by the company over the years.