Giants in the City: They Came, We Saw, They Conquered

By Anne Tschida

altOn a blazing hot day this past August, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden felt like an oasis of cool. Yes, some of it had to do with the fabulous foliage of one of our best preserves for tropical vegetation – flowers were blooming and the distinct aroma from the Ylang Ylang tree perfumed the air. But it was those large, inflatable sculptures waving in the wind that were beyond cool.

They were Giants in the City, and they were taking over the garden.

This quirky outdoor public art project in its latest incarnation included 25 durable, waterproof nylon taffeta pieces, from artists such as Jose Bedia, Edouard Duval-Carrie, Yovani Bauta, Lucinda Linderman, Gustavo Acosta, and Tomas Esson, to name just a few. The works came in various shapes and colors, but all interacted with the garden’s verdant landscape and its numerous visitors. Some of the sculptures soared as high as 30-plus feet, and to watch them inflate – or one could also imagine, to watch them “grow up” and fill out their bodies – is something to behold.

For the 4.5 acre garden (which, along with the rare and exotic Ylang Ylang, also includes an incredible plethora of orchids), this was by far the biggest public art exhibit, according to garden director Laura Jamieson. Watching the sculptures inflate every morning was quite a scene, she said. And the fact that it is free and open to the public added to the attraction.

This morning during the early August six-day event was Family Day, so kids and their parents were meandering into the grounds to take a tour, play with (and punch) the sculptures, and maybe even learn a thing or two about nature.

Walking in from the front gate with some of them, turning on to a path to our left, we encountered three towering, white, missile-like structures slightly swaying in a light breeze, while thunder clouds gathered in the sky above them. Whether or not they were missiles, artist Gino Tozzi named them a Family.

Across the path, a green serpent created by Duval – Carrie snaked on the lawn, nearby a fabulous, multi – colored spiky creature from Angel Vapor. In the center of the garden, we bumped into Frank Hyder’s giant burnt – orange and red shaman head. All around him were other forms: a towering dagger from Sergio Garcia, an Anti-Art Man from Mariano Costa-Peuser, and a talisman from Tomas Esson. A sculpture of a Victorian dress was accessorized with things a little bit darker: Mid-Evil from Anja Marais also had little hands sprouting all over the place from the folds in the skirt.

In another area, a blue-tube body topped with a bird-head, an “organic patriotic” pink lighthouse (from Gustavo Acosta), and a piece with a protruding shark’s fin formed another little community. With palm fronds and purple and red blooms popping up in between them all, the total installation was breathtaking.

The transportable, inflatable sculpture park is the brainchild of artist Alejandro Mendoza, whose white-and-black bovine type sculpture titled Milk was an inhabitant of this botanical show. He first produced Giants in the City two years ago during Art Basel Miami Beach, when similar nylon giants – though far fewer of them – cropped up in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami, and similarly mesmerized local traffic. Some of these giants have made a reappearance here in the Botanical Garden, such as Esson’s, Acosta’s and Marais’s.
Although imposing in height, these are light-weight and easy to install: the sculptures can be inflated and deflated in minutes, and can then be packed in a bag and carried to a new location – anywhere in the world. Then they are supported upright by a continuous stream of air from a generator.

The mission is to create an impromptu public space intervention, where sculptures can be plopped down in an existing landscape, so that the art, the visiting public, and the local terrain can all mix and interact with each other. It is also a chance for artists to experiment with large-scale, 3-d works that will get a wide audience (and hence reaction).

However, the process of creation is not so simple. While the artists included are diverse and inclusive, Mendoza as curator has chosen participants in terms of how well their pieces would work in 3-d, in scale, and how that would complement the artist’s medium and work.

The process would go something like this: Mendoza and the artist meet several times and go over three or four or more concepts, which need to conform to certain mathematical and logistical realities. The artist learns about the range of creative possibilities, and also about challenges involving the material, weather conditions, air supply (through a generator), and installation. Indeed, the pieces are anchored with cable, but are loose enough to move with the wind, letting them come alive in whatever location.

Artist Yovani Bauta was one such artist whose work became a Giant. He submitted a proposal to Mendoza, which was of an inflatable leg. “I have always worked with human bodies,” says the Cuban-born artist, who also teaches at MDC. “For me, we can find a sociological map in the body of people. Every fragment of our body says something about our own history, and at the same time, show an idea of our social circumstances.”

He says he chose a leg for this project, as it is a fragment of human body that supports us and allows us to travel anywhere, sort of like the theme of public exhibit. “Our legs are the most important tools for motion, but also could be a funny gesture for dancing, like the French ‘Can Can… ” So under a palm tree, Bauta’s leg – with knee joint and foot up in the air – kicked and danced with the wind, and was indeed humorous and fun as a garden dance partner.But it took a lot of work to get it to that point. “It was a very laborious event! We had to spend a lot of energy,” he recalls.

While too short of a stint at the Botanical Garden (a month instead of six days would have been great, but the constraints of any public place and its schedule are always part and parcel of such an event), the Giants will be reappearing both here and abroad. They are being inflated in the Dominican Republic in September and have been invited to expand to Cuba and Spain. Then, they will return for Art Basel again. For that, “we likely will have 30 pieces in total, now we are on 25,” says Mendoza. “Giants are in a constant evolution as the family keeps growing. Our goal is to reach 100.”

Back at the Botanical Garden on closing night, the Giants were standing strong; it was the human population that was struggling to keep from wilting. “I think we had the most humid closing party ever!” says Noor Blazekoviv, publisher of Irreversible Magazine, a co-sponsor of this event. She also had an inflatable in the show and will help produce future Giant exhibits.

As participating artists and revelers tried to stave off the heat with drinks and music, Jose Bedia’s sculpture loomed over, cool and calm. Just as a giant in the city should.

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