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Simone Decker, Air Bag, Video Still

UNDER PRESSURE; Hazmat Gallery • Tucson, Arizona

by John Richey

“Under Pressure” is an exhibition that showcases inflatable artwork and video-based installation. Its main focus explores ideas of the physical and inherent tension held within the many properties of air as a medium. This international exhibition, on display at the Hazmat Gallery, highlights a collection of works curated by Marc Olivier-Wahler of the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art, New York City, in collaboration with Le27ème Stratagème and the Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The Swiss Institute is an independent, non-profit cultural center founded in 1986 to promote an artistic dialogue between Switzerland and the United States. Today it holds art exhibitions and concerts, hosts lectures and a biennial dance festival, as well as film and video screenings throughout the year.


A phenomenal group of international artists are exhibiting work, including Cercle Ramo Nash (F), Martin Creed (UK), Simone Decker (Lux), Graham Durward (US), Fabrice Gygi, Eric Hattan (CH), Pierre Joseph (F), Stéphane Magnin (F), Thom Merrick (US), Takashi Murakami (J), Philippe Parreno (F), Stefan Pente (CH), Henrik Plenge Jakobsen (DK), Pierre Reimer (F), Roman Signer (CH), and @Home (CH). Thirteen works are on display throughout the space including a number of gigantic inflatable figures/animals. Crucial pieces include Simone Decker’s Air Bag video from ‘97, Stefan Pente’s video OT from ‘94, and Fabrica Gygi’s rubber and plastic inflatable “Minoviras” from ‘00. Each of these pieces examines how air can be used as an art medium in a unique way.


Simone Decker was born in Luxembourg and creates installations as well as video works. In Air Bag, a projected video shows the artist with a plastic bag over her head, tied around the neck, inhaling and exhaling slowly. As the artist breathes the bag inflates and deflates over her head and face as well as posing the possibility of suffocation. This piece references early experimental artist video with its static camera and repetitive action, as well as the Body Art movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Air Bag is a visual intervention that displays a grown woman’s self-motivated suffocation and reemergence. The video clip evokes a child choking on a plastic bag, as well as other works including Chris Burden’s ‘74 performance Velvet Water in which the artist attempted to breath water. The work’s simplicity and visual appeal are extremely fascinating, effective, and poignant.


Decker pushes the boundaries of air as a medium, much in the way that Burden did 25 years earlier, by placing her physical body in juxtaposition with the medium causing conflict. Decker questions that which keeps us alive and sustains existence in a hands-on, critical fashion whose failure could mean death. It is this willingness to pull the plastic bag over her head that creates an intriguing piece.


Stefan Pente was born in Zurich and works in Zurich and Berlin, Germany. In his video OT, as in Decker’s video, the artist combines static camera operations with edited performance-based video footage. Segmented clips are tightly edited together which show Pente blowing up a mass of individual party balloons until they explode in his face. The video lasts between five and seven minutes and is fast-paced and loud. The visual imagery of the artist intentionally popping balloons in his own face is captivating to watch because it is startling and unexpected. 


This piece calls into questions the idea of limits. How far can we push things until they bend, stretch, break, or explode? In this case Pente makes this point in a clear and direct manner. The constant repetition of a single monotonous action is mesmerizing because of its annoyingly loud sound and the wonderful illusion of physical shock and pain on the part of Pente. In the end, all of Pente’s hard work blows up in his face, literally and metaphorically. Is this a Contemporary metaphor to live by? How much further can the world push until things blow up in our face? How much harder can we possibly push each other until differences boil over and explode? Pente uses himself as a prime example to bring this metaphor to a larger audience. Air is used to address larger social and political issues in an effective and startling new way.


Fabrica Gygi was born in Switzerland and is known for installations that deal with different forms of authority within many Democratic societies. His piece for “Under Pressure,” “Minoviras,” is a set of three large rubber and plastic inflatable spiked spheres. These oversized land mines—or medieval, bondage-esque torture devices—appear to be sharp and menacing at first glance, but upon closer inspection, are light and malleable. The work’s inflatable insides exist in sharp contrast to its outward appearance. Air, in conjunction with other man-made devices, is presented as a weighty, heavy object used to facilitate torture, pain, and death. The oversized nature of the work also introduces an element of the comedic. The work appears sharp, yet is not. It appears heavy, yet is not. It is this play between the inherent quality of air and the visually weighty look of “Minoviras” that makes Gygi’s inflatable work such a whimsical and provocative highlight of the exhibition.


All of the works on display share a common theme: air. “Under Pressure” creates a space in which the internal struggle between air as a medium and its sharp, exploding, or suffocating potential can be explored to its fullest extent. The joy of the Macy’s Day Parade, the safety of an inflatable airbag, and the shock of a popping party balloon are all exploited through the body of work created and displayed. An exploration of traditional ideas of tension and stress through the use of innovative media, including highly durable plastics, canvases, rubber and air/wind, is executed with precision, clarity, and grace. “Under Pressure” finds excitement in tension and contradiction of media, while addressing social issues with a breath of fresh air. Apart from being visually appealing and playful, the exhibition forces its viewers to question and reposition themselves in relation to the common element of air in all of its various forms.


John Richey

Tucson, Arizona



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