When you live and work in a city over a long period of time, it’s sometimes possible to get so accustomed to seeing a mild amount of litter on the streets that you barely notice it after awhile. But what if one day the street litter suddenly came to life and began to move on its own right in front of you? That’s part of the genius of Joshua Allen Harris‘s inflatable bag animals, which is the subject of the next post in my green art installation series.
Around 2008, Harris decided to create a small polar bear sculpture out of white plastic grocery bags and attached the bear to a subway grating in New York. When the sculpture is at rest, it looks like an ordinary piece of trash on the grating. But as as the subway passes by, it pushes air up through the grating, animating the bear in a pretty life-like way:
It’s best to see a video of the bear so that you can see how it works. Harris has posted an excellent video of Air Bear on his home page if you’d like to check it out. He also later did a video with Sesame Street of a similar sculpture that I’m rather partial to:
Harris eventually forgot about the bear until someone took a video/picture of it and posted it on the Internet. People started gushing about the bear statue and it quickly went viral on the web. The overwhelming attention the bear received inspired Harris to make several more more inflatable bag animals and place them throughout New York.
Here’s a few of my favorites (although there’s plenty more interesting ones besides these on his website):
Again, it’s best to see these sculptures in animation, so I’d recommend checking out Harris’s website to watch some of the videos about them. I’d also recommend watching a video interview with Harris posted by the New York Magazine.
There are a number of reasons why I’m intrigued by Harris’s artwork. One reason is that his artwork has an element of surprise and drama. As Harris says: “Part of the magic is that it looks like trash on the street and then it becomes animated and comes to life.” As I mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s easy to get used to seeing litter to the point where we stop thinking about it. But Harris’s inflatable bag animals cause us to take notice of trash bags and think about them in a different way. For me, it makes me reflect on how our trash in some ways has a life of its own. (Literally, in this case!) Even though I might throw a plastic grocery bag away, it doesn’t mean it no longer exists. It will continue to exist and have an impact on the environment over the long-term whether I realize it or not. Using humor and whimsy, Harris’s artwork makes us notice the litter in our environment that is otherwise invisible and taken for granted as “somebody else’s job to clean up.”
Another thing I find intriguing about Harris’s sculptures is that they can sometimes evoke an emotional response. On one level, I recognize that these sculptures are non-living objects made out of plastic trash bags or grocery bags. But on another level, I find that I respond emotionally to the creatures as though they were alive. Some people have commented that watching the sculptures deflate makes them feel sad, as though the sculpture is dying. This is especially poignant with the polar bear sculptures. Polar bears are often a visible symbol of the effects of climate change. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the use of the subway (i.e. public transportation) is what brings these polar bears back to life?
Lastly, what I like about these sculptures is that it makes us think differently about cityscapes. In an interview with New York Magazine, Harris said: “The part that is exciting is [that the] city decides how it’s going to animate the sculpture.” Harris’s artwork reminds me that a city is an ecosystem too. I often erroneously think of cities as existing independently of the environment, as being somehow separate or removed from nature. But the truth is that cities are a kind of unique, human-created ecosystem with many of the same characteristics of natural ecosystems. They, too, depend on the interaction of living and non-living processes to sustain life and support the cycling of goods such as food, air, and fresh water. I wonder if I don’t always think of cities as being ecosystems because I don’t see large animals roaming about them. What’s cool about the inflatable bag animals is that they come to life and even begin to interact with unsuspecting pedestrians or cars in humorous ways. Watching humans interact with these faux city animals gives me pause and makes me think more about the city as a kind of unique environment in its own right.
At any rate, these whimsical sculptures are quite simply awe-inspiring feats of engineering in and of themselves. I wish that we had an underground subway system here in Utah because I think it would be fun to try making a few inflatable bag monsters of my own. Seriously cool!