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The Bigger Than Life Team Behind Paul McCarthy’s Inflammatory Inflatables

The Team: “I am the little guy all the way on the right,” says Greg Favish, “Mark [Bachman] is the taller guy all the way on the left.” The tree on the Place Vendome was, Bachman says, “a teaser” — in a sense, an advertisement — for 'Chocolate Factory',' an installation created by McCarthy for the grand re-opening of la Monnaie de Paris’ at FIAC. Photo courtesy of Bigger Than Life
The Team: “I am the little guy all the way on the right,” says Greg Favish, “Mark [Bachman] is the taller guy all the way on the left.” The tree on the Place Vendome was, Bachman says, “a teaser” — in a sense, an advertisement — for Chocolate Factory, ‘an installation created by McCarthy for the grand re-opening of la Monnaie de Paris’ at FIAC. (all photos courtesy Bigger Than Life unless otherwise noted)
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, Santa with Butt Plug, 2007 Vinyl-coated nylon, 4 fans, rigging, 24.40 x 12.20 m / 80 x 40 ft Installation view, ‘Paul McCarthy – Air Pressure’, De Uithof, City of Utrecht, Netherlands, 2009 Photo: Mark Vos © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy, “Santa with Butt Plug” (2007), vinyl-coated nylon, four fans, rigging, 24.40 x 12.20 m / 80 x 40 ft, at Paul McCarthy – Air Pressure, De Uithof, City of Utrecht, Netherlands, 2009 (photo by Mark Vos © Paul McCarthy, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth) (click to enlarge)

“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.

Bound to Fail - PM HM Sculpture on a Pedestal 2003 – 2004 Inflatable sculpture on top of The Whitney Museum of American Art Vinyl, fans and scaffolding 1524 x 1066.8 x 762 cm / 600 x 420 x 300 in / 50 x 35 x 25 ft © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
“Bound to Fail – PM HM Sculpture on a Pedestal” (2003 – 2004), inflatable sculpture on top of The Whitney Museum of American ArtVinyl, fans and scaffolding, 1524 x 1066.8 x 762 cm / 600 x 420 x 300 in / 50 x 35 x 25 ft (image © Paul McCarthy, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

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.”

Paul McCarthy, Flowers, 2005 Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, ropes, fans, 15 x 75 m / 49.21 x 246 ft Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy, “Flowers” (2005), vinyl-coated nylon fabric, ropes, fans, 15 x 75 m / 49.21 x 246 ft (Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich, © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

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.”

Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, 2007 Vinyl-coated nylon fabric, 6 fans, rigging, 1575 x 3350 x 1580 cm / 620 1/8 x 1318 7/8 x 622 in Installation view, Middelheim Sculpture Museum, Antwerp, Belgium, 2007 Photo: Neil Donkers © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy, “Complex Pile” (2007), vinyl-coated nylon fabric, six fans, rigging, 1575 x 3350 x 1580 cm / 620 1/8 x 1318 7/8 x 622 inInstallation view, Middelheim Sculpture Museum, Antwerp, Belgium, 2007 (photo by Neil Donkers © Paul McCarthy Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

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.

Some of BTL's inflatables can reach 85’ft tall. For test inflation they have to go outside…..normally the factory parking lot. If the weather does not cooperate sometimes they have to go to the local sports area and ask for a few hours of time to use the facility!
Some of BTL’s inflatables can reach 85-ft tall. For test inflation they have to go outside, normally the factory parking lot. If the weather does not cooperate sometimes they have to go to the local sports area and ask for a few hours of time to use the facility.

“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.

BTL's M&M Peanuts 1st Anniversary Pinata Inflatable under construction at the NYC 69th Regiment Armory holds the Guinness World Record for largest Pinata at 46ft tall. This Photo shows the BTL team at work on the yellow guy. Photo courtesy BTL.
BTL’s M&M Peanuts 1st Anniversary Pinata Inflatable under construction at the NYC 69th Regiment Armory holds the Guinness World Record for largest Pinata at 46ft tall. This Photo shows the BTL team at work on the yellow guy.
Dracula, located at Universal Parks, Japan is 35 feet tall. The 75 foot Pepsi Monster was created for the Super Bowl and stalked New York's Times Square at 75ft High
Dracula, located at Universal Parks, Japan is 35 feet tall. The 75-foot Pepsi Monster was created for the Super Bowl was erected in New York’s Times Square.
Spiderman crept down the Loew’s Theatre, NYC  for the movie's release, spanning 60 feet of facade. A 25 foot Wall-E also attended a move release at El Capitan Theatre, Hollywood.
Spiderman crept down the Loew’s Theatre, NYC during the movie’s release, spanning 60 feet of the building’s facade. A 25-foot Wall-E also attended a move release at El Capitan Theatre, Hollywood.
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