Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

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, 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 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)

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, 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.

“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.

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 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.

Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory. Formerly Cat wrote How To Talk About...

11 replies on “The Bigger Than Life Team Behind Paul McCarthy’s Inflammatory Inflatables”

  1. Dull and witless, although good enough for movie advertising. Worthy to be set besides the works of Koons. I wonder if something interesting could be done with them.

  2. Awesome. Without ever alluding to it, you’ve managed to make
    a biting criticism of McCarthy’s art practice and inflatables output. What
    becomes abundantly clear is that he ordered the things, and a company that
    makes other inflatables, like giant M&Ms, does all the real work. Hell,
    these days McCarthy doesn’t even oversee the project much. In essence, McCarthy
    does the exact same thing as the company that ordered the 75 foot high Pepsi
    Monster: he orders it. And in reality his Christmas Buttplug is no more nor
    less art than the Pepsi Monster, once it is taken out of the thin rhetorical
    framework of a linear history of contemporary art. Taken off the Place Vendome
    in Paris, McCarthy’s “Tree” becomes just a prop for a sale on sex toys, or even
    a sale on game pieces for a game shop. Remaining on the Place Vendome it’s a prop for a fictitious paradigm of art hierarchy and lineage (an ironic Postmodern master narrative of art, institutionally reified, and backed by big money). And all those lame chocolates he’s selling inside for big bucks are supposed to be not a sell out because they’re some sort of ironic comment on selling out?! When part of your art is a gift shop, you have “sell out” branded on your forehead. You are selling souvenirs. Sure, artists need to make money, but, somehow the snug fit with capitalism doesn’t sit easy with conceptual art that’s supposed to be rocking our foundations as the root of its legitimacy.

    Shiiiiiiit, I made a parody over a year ago that predicted this whole “Tree” episode, but my parodic giant green sculpture and the controversy surrounding it were way more cool, IMO. See pic and link. Anyway, whether it’s Hirst, or Koons, or McCarthy, when you make the
    phone call to get a crew of professionals to make your art for you, you are the
    manager of an art department giving out an assignment, and essentially the same
    as the guy who ordered the Pepsi Monster. After looking at the images in the
    article, the real artists are obviously the “Bigger Than Life (BTL) manufacturing company,” and Paul McCarthy is the client. But it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye (or ass, in McCarthy’s case)! And the smug theoretical stance that the people who make the actual artworks are negligible workers working with their hands, while the conceptual artist is a GENIUS because he has the brilliant idea is older and more offensive than any stereotype of the romantic, outsider artist, easel painting in his basement ever was.

    And, in the Hong Kong outdoor show where McCarthy had his giant dog shit, Tam Wai had a giant cockroach and half submerged inflatable human that were way more cool. See here: http://publicdelivery.org/tag/paul-mccarthy/

    (Shhhh. Maybe, just maybe, the more a piece of art sucks, the better it isn’t. But you didn’t hear it from me. I worship all the over inflated, over hyped, multi-million dollar mega-art-productions. Remember: If it ain’t anti-art, it ain’t art!)

    My Parody: http://artofericwayne.com/2013/11/15/giant-sea-monster-removed-and-destroyed/

    1. Ug. Stop promoting stuff on this site. That’s the second time you’ve placed that very link in comments. Have you no shame?

      1. My sincere apologies. Since there was no response at all, I thought nobody saw it (imagine you’d done that prank and nobody responded). If anyone had commented on it, even just a “Ha!”, there’s no way in the hell we live in that I’d post a link again. No F’ing way! And since there was nothing for sale, and I don’t make any money off of art, I didn’t really see it as promotion, or at least not promotion I can hope to make a nickel off of. I thought it was very relevant commentary, in an original form which couldn’t be replicated in a text comment, which had completely slipped through the cracks. Call me biased. I’ll leave art and art criticisms to the authorities, at least as regards your columns (I’ve noted your name). But I can’t just disappear. And is there any shame to ignoring and damning intelligent commentary on art, when it appears in a comments section? I try to imagine if I was in your shoes and wrote a column and somebody posted such a link. I’d be totally into it. But that’s just me, and to me your repsonse is superficial and quells rather than fuels investigation of the issues. We live in different paradigmatic universes. I won’t darken your comments section again. Cheers.

    2. Awesome. Without ever alluding to it, you’ve managed to make a biting criticism of McCarthy’s art practice and inflatables output.
      My thought exactly. This piece almost reads like a satire of the vacuousness of hucksters like McCarthy, Koons, etc. But I still wonder, who was the brain-dead Paris bureaucrat who gave the go-ahead to placing “Tree” in Place Vendome in the first place?

      1. You seem to not understand the concept of “conceptual art.” Simply put, an artist like McCarthy, Koons, LeWitt, et all, has an idea for a piece. The actual rendering of the concept then goes to the craftspeople to build.

        Perhaps you prefer to define your art narrowly. “Art is only still lives of fruit bowls, Rubenseque nudes, and sculptures of perfect noses and abs — as long as it it thoughts of and completed by one individual.”

        Well, you’re entitled to your view as much as anyone. But let’s at least admit that if I don’t regard clams as food, I’m not going to put a Yelp comment on a raw bar complaining about the lack of kale. If you don’t accept conceptual art, just keep on walking, as your thoughts on the topic lack merit. Unless you can approach a work within its medium — I wouldn’t criticize a play in a football game by complaining that the quarterback didn’t throw a fastball or a slider — then simply move on, sir.

        1. David Kaplan, I have no problem with conceptual art in principle. The problem with so much of the work of McCarthy, Koons, et al is that the ideas are inane if not sophomoric.

Comments are closed.