What’s Behind the Mass Appeal of Inflatable Art?

The medium's popularity may point to a desire for dream-like and sometimes bizarre engagements beyond those found in traditional museum or gallery spaces.

Giant purple and green tentacles swarm out what looks to be an abandoned factory ina grassy field
A Designs in Air installation in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Photo: Andrew Weiss

Colossal green tentacles bursting out of a building’s windows is not something you’ll see every day in Colaba—one of South Mumbai’s buzziest areas—yet there it was as I made my way through the neighborhood. The mammoth monster parts were installed for the launch of a new urban contemporary and post-graffiti art space, Gallery XXL, and just one example of the inflatable art making waves on the art scene as of late.

The work, which one can reasonably call sculpture, is the brainchild of UK-based artists and Designs in Air founders Luke Egan and Pete Hamilton, who create what they call ‘inflatable art interventions’. If you haven’t seen their waving tentacles, chances are you’ve seen other inflatable art pieces take over shops, streets or cultural institutions near you.

No longer in their rookie days of bouncy castles or flailing stick men outside car dealerships, inflatables have, in the hands of skilled creators, become their own uncanny art form. Consider Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s cheerfully enormous rubber ducks floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, Jacquemus breaking the Internet with Ian Padgham’s CGI-generated handbag inflating in the ocean and Yayoi Kusama’s You, Me and the Balloons, an exhibition entirely devoted to the artist’s inflatable work.

What is it about this emerging art form? It could be the medium’s unique ability to instantly spark joy and wonder. “People’s daily, often mundane cityscape is instantly changed and you can see the surprise and pleasure it brings on their faces when they see the MOOP (matter out of place)—something really weird and ridiculously large that wasn’t there minutes before,” Egan told Observer.

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Egan’s business partner Hamilton started out making small, spiky decor objects for 90s-era parties around the UK and Europe, inspired by new fractal computer graphics. The duo decided to collaborate to take their inflatable art concepts to greater heights, quite literally, and champion it as legitimate design work. Today, they produce and install towering jellyfish, octopi, eyeballs, lobsters, flowers and cartoonish monsters in cities around the world.

“We were both attracted to many elements of the medium; the beautiful curves and shapes that were achievable, the minimal materials and their clean, lightweight and translucent properties,” Egan added. As they experimented, they discovered endless applications for inflatable technology, from chill-out and interactive play spaces to pure sculpture. “We wanted to be the antithesis of commercial inflatables for advertising or clunky cartoon bouncy castles.”

Unlike artworks in museums and galleries that are generally meant to be admired from a distance, large-scale inflatables tend to be not just public but also approachable. French architect turned artist Cyril Lancelin, who has been commissioned by the likes of Porsche, Adidas, Google, Snapchat and other heavy-hitter brands, is a master of creating inflatable art with which viewers readily engage. He bends and molds inflatable installations into every conceivable shape so audiences can explore his work from within.

Lancelin likens creating his inflatable sculptures to building huge puzzles. “You need to calculate the right amount of airflow inside so that the installation is standing the way you want it to,” he explained. “The basic structure is drawn using 3D software that involves parametric equations and you can play around with different shapes and fabrics with varying levels of translucency. At the same time, one needs to figure out how to make an inflatable as big and spectacular as possible while employing an economy of materials.”

A large pyramid structure made from what appear to be purple balloons standing in a grassy field
Cyril Lancelin’s Pyramid Sphere for the Made in America Festival in Philadelphia. (c) Cyril Lancelin

Last year, he collaborated with fashion brand Coach to create a life-sized inflatable version of their plush Pillow Tabby bag in the middle of Soho Square in London. The unexpected softness of the inflatable mirrored the quilted fabric of the handbag and quickly drew scores of people wanting to touch, feel and interact with the installation.

“I enjoy examining the dialogue between the public and the sculpture itself,” Lancelin said. “It’s interesting to see the different angles, views and lighting people find within my inflatable; the photos I see on social media always surprise me. They show their creativity inside my artwork and that creativity comes back to me in an inspiring way.”

A vast pink knot in what looks to be an open public space with tall columns
Cyril Lancelin’s ‘Knot’ in Hangzhou in 2017. Photo (c) Sam Hsueh

Indian artists and studios are also breaking new ground with inflatable installations. Mumbai-based interdisciplinary creative studio How Are You Feeling’s Tube and Ball installation was part of the 2022 wedding of founders Doyel Joshi and Neil Balser. The couple met at Parsons School of Design in New York, and their wedding at Mandawa Castle in Rajasthan was attended by friends and family from vastly different cultural backgrounds. Inflatable art became a common point of reference.

“We had invited our curatorial and designer friends from New York, my aunties in ghunghat, Neil’s German farmer uncles and my Bengali family,” Joshi told Observer. “The question was: how do we create a communal space where language, culture and rituals are a barrier? How do we facilitate an environment that ultimately communicates the love and purpose that Neil and I have together which brought us together to this moment? Art was the answer.”

People in the courtyard of an Indian castle with a large inflatable artwork woven through recesses and windows
A shot of the wedding of artists Doyel Joshi and Neil Balser. EshantRaju Photography

The bright red tube they wove through the pillars and recesses in the charmingly chaotic maze-like property along with a giant red ball set on the balcony received a lot of attention, given their nuptial’s coverage in Vogue India. Since then, Joshi and Balser have found plenty of patrons—the giant red ball even starred in a performance piece in a Lovebirds fashion show.

“There’s so much going on in our world, and it’s hard to grab attention and make someone stop and think,” the couple shared. “Large-scale inflatables interrupt the onlooker. There has to be that disruption or intervention for somebody to really question why and how it’s affecting them. I think the core of any work, whether it is an inflatable or not, starts with the question of whether it’s going to have an impact. What does this mean? What emotion does it evoke? That’s the context we work from.”

Inflatables are, Joshi considered, accessible in a way other art often is not and somehow removed from commercial connotations—even when employed for marketing purposes.  How Are You Feeling produces art that lives ‘outside the white room,’ as she puts it. “[Museums and galleries] serve a limited audience and there is a little bit of privilege involved in it. When inflatable art exists in public spaces, it uplifts and inspires people. It creates a democratic community; anyone from any socio-economic state can look or interact with it and have an emotion towards it.”

Large green and yellow octopus tentacles swarm out of the windows of a large stone building
Designs in Air tentacles at the Accroche-coeurs festival. Terry Rook - Glance Image

Inflatable art being so highly Instagrammable may have a somewhat cutting effect on its cultural cachet, but its overall popularity points to our desire for dream-like and sometimes bizarre engagements beyond those found in traditional museum or gallery spaces. As Lancelin pointed out, public interaction with inflatable art can become an art form in itself—one that births a thousand different narratives and experiences. We prompt changes to the dynamics of the original beyond the maker’s imagination. In doing so, we create Joshi’s democratic community.

So, go ahead, touch the art. No need to be ‘in the know’ or to have highbrow artistic tastes. A giant octopus sprawling in your neighborhood can serve many purposes, but if it humors us, that’s enough. There’s immense power in that.

What’s Behind the Mass Appeal of Inflatable Art?