Art What! Arts Museums Singapore

Museum Musings: Floating Utopias at the ArtScience Museum

Castle of Vooruit (2012) Ahmet Öğüt Courtesy of nGbk Berlin (2018); Photo copyright: Luca Girardini

The ArtScience Museum’s latest exhibition is here, and it’s probably going to float your boat. Why? Because at Floating Utopias, you’ll practically be walking on air with over 40 artworks taking a closer look at inflatable objects over time and how they have been used in art, architecture and social activism.

Presented over five ‘chapters’, the four-month long exhibition shows how inflatable objects have opened up new possibilities time and time again. Starting with the invention of the hot air balloon, humanity proceeded to leave the confines of the ground for the first time and experience the Earth from above. Floating Utopias then explores how this invention has gone on to shape the way we understand the world and our place in it. Grounded by a strong political narrative that reveals how inflatable objects were used for ideological propaganda in the 20th century, we also see how artists countered these tendencies by using them as playful tools of social activism, while visitors will also be privy to how inflatables created new innovations within architecture and urban planning, and shows how contemporary artists and designers are turning to inflatable structures to help us rethink our relationship with the environment.

Eyes in the Sky (2018) Anna Hoetjes Film in loop, 8 min 30 sec Photo credit: Anna Hoetjes

Says curators Artúr van Balen, Fabiola Bierhoff and Anna Hoetjes of Floating Utopias Foundation: “Inflatables invite us to be playful and to reclaim public space; they help to forge communities and promote participation. Their disruptive, ephemeral presence challenges power structures, by reminding us that after all, everything is temporary. Inflatables invite us to be playful and to reclaim public space; they help to forge communities and promote participation. Their disruptive, ephemeral presence challenges power structures, by reminding us that after all, everything is temporary.” 

Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (2000), Momoyo Torimitsu Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands

The exhibition begins with Balloon Fever, explores how ballooning became a source of mass fascination for the public in Europe in the 18th century. With the rise of balloon spectacles, the public began to expand their perception of what was possible, inspiring new modes of travel and communication, and prompting scientific innovation. In the late 1960s, a new kind of inflatable fever caught the public imagination. New synthetic materials and inflatable media led to a new era of construction, encouraging a more fluid, nomadic vision of society. Amongst the exhibits in this chapter are Ahmet Öğüt’s Castle of Vooruit (2012), as well as Japanese artist Momoyo Torimitsu’s Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (2000). The latter work comprises two giant inflatable pink bunnies facing one another within a confined space. While initially whimsical and playful, by supersizing them, their cuteness become distorted and perverted instead.

WALTER (2010, reproduced in 2019 series 2/3) Dawn Ng Commissioned by ArtScience Museum Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands

In the next chapter, Display and Disrupt, visitors will view how inflatables have been used in public spectacles. Examples of this include the USA’s large commercial parades, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the 1920s, while in the Soviet Union, inflatables were used from the 1930s, in large socialist state parades. Here, we see how  inflatable objects have served as tools for ideological propaganda, and how artists, in contrast, have deployed inflatables in more grassroots contexts. Of these, viewers will of course, come face to face with local artist Dawn Ng’s incomparable WALTER. Having been designed specifically to be seen outdoors in the cityscape of Singapore, WALTER has appeared in local neighbourhoods, such as shophouses, hawker stalls, convenience stores, playgrounds and MRT stations, drawing attention to some of Singapore’s inherently familiar, yet overlooked spaces, acting as a means to disrupt everyday lived experience and inviting us to reconsider the character and charm of the place where we live.

SurvivaBall (2006) The Yes Men Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands

In the third chapter, Bubble Architecture, inflatable structures are examined through the lens of their inspiration to a new generation of designers and urban planners in the 1960s, as they explored the possibilities of temporary and mobile architecture. Through these radical architects inspiration from advancements in new media and space technology, inflatable structures were then used to question the conventions of permanent architecture.

Aerocene Explorer (2016) Tomás Saraceno Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands

The fourth chapter, Solar Sustainability, features the work of artists who use inflatable media to advocate for a more sustainable relationship between people and the environment. Climate change and biodiversity loss have increased the urgency to fundamentally rethink how humanity can occupy the planet in a more sustainable way. The artists in this section of the exhibition show how inflatable structures can provide lightweight alternatives to environmentally-damaging systems.

Atmosfields (1968–71) Graham Stevens Film in loop, 29 min 28 sec Courtesy of the artist

Finally, in Vertical Exploration, visitors go back to the very beginning as they see how the invention of the first hot air balloon in the 18th century heralded a new age of scientific exploration. For the first time, the sky could be directly investigated and the Earth could be seen from above. This prompted new approaches to measuring the planet’s weather systems, and accelerated the desire to explore the sky beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. This urge to leave the planet’s surface ultimately led to the space race of the 1960s. We see this especially in Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon (2019), a large inflatable sculpture of the Moon, made using state of the art scientific imagery, that closes the exhibition. Installed to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing by NASA astronauts in 1969, this work invites us to contemplate the Moon today, using the latest moon science.

Museum of the Moon (2019) Luke Jerram Commissioned by ArtScience Museum Photo credit: Marina Bay Sands

In addition Floating Utopias will also feature a series of outdoor performances and community engagements that invite the public to take part and contribute their creativity to the show. The first of these performances takes place on the evening of opening night on 25th May, where artist group Tools for Action (Tomás Espinosa and Artúr van Balen), in collaboration with Singapore-based performer Susan Sentler, will invite the public to participate in a unique nocturnal performance that encourages new forms of assembly and communication using 19 large portable inflatable light sculptures.

Signals 2.0. Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

In addition, within the exhibition itself, one will be able to see Tomás Saraceno’s Museo Aero Solar, a lighter-than-air balloon sculpture powered by the heat of the sun. Saraceno and his Aero Solar Foundation have conducted workshops around the world, encouraging communities to create their own solar balloons using recycled plastic. As such, visitors are encouraged to bring used plastic bags to ArtScience Museum and work together inside the galleries to create a giant, colourful recycled plastic patchwork balloon, which will be launched into the air towards the end of the show.

Museo Aero Solar. Photo Credit: Marina Bay Sands

Says Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum: “Ever since the first hot-air balloon ascended into the skies in the 18th century, inflatable objects have inspired the public’s imagination, generating utopian dreams of castles in the sky, floating laboratories and cloud cities. This exhibition combines play, poetry and politics to explore the artistic and scientific story of inflatables. It includes powerful and imaginative artworks dramatically suspended in the air inside ArtScience Museum’s galleries, and outdoor performances, hands-on workshops and interventions into the city that invite the public to take part and shape their own utopia. Local and regional artists, including Dawn Ng and Momoyo Torimitsu, remind us that inflatable objects have been used across Asia too, including in Singapore’s own National Day Parade. Taken together, the artworks and artefacts in the show reveal the impact inflatables continue have on our collective consciousness.”

Floating Utopias runs at the ArtScience Museum from 25th May to 29th September 2019. Tickets and more information available here


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