Meeting Michael Shaw’s inflatable sculpture INF23, at Left Bank Leeds- a multidisciplinary art venue in suburban Headingley – I experienced a sharp intake of breath and a sense of joyous familiarity. This 26 metres long, 12 metres wide and 8 metres high, neon striped piece is not Shaw’s first breathable large-scale sculpture, but here in Left Bank Leeds it seems to find a home amongst the pews, high ceilings and arched windows of this Grade II listed building and former church. In Shaw’s words the work is dynamic, ambitious and brings together all of the successful aspects of its various predecessors in one sculpture. Shaw was a former student of Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett University) in the late 90’s. Based in Loughborough, and with a studio in Nottingham, this show is a homecoming of sorts.
Unable to take the sculpture in in one go, the viewer must walk around and under it, brushing up against it. It glows; its yellows and pinks an explosion of delight. Its sheer size and present-ness are joyful. At regular intervals small brass rubbing stations have been made using the simple stone ledges within the space. Boxes of wax crayons and sheaves of paper beckon visitors – young and old alike – to sit and make rubbings of shapes/elements present in the sculpture, whilst INF23 watches benignly. Like a huge balloon, a circus top, a child’s fantastical imaginary friend writ large it sits and breathes, making slight snuffling sounds, emitting gurgles and whirrs, huffs and puffs, and the occasional whoosh. INF23 is powered, brought alive, by a small fan operating on a three minute cycle which hums and thrums to itself in busy-ness and deep concentration.
Its internal heartbeat can be heard if you stand close (and who can stop themselves wanting to stand close?), growing louder the closer you come to one of the bulbous protrusions. The sounds rise and fall away, interspersed with soft, hauntingly sweet musical notes that surge and drop in the enormous exhibition space. Its plump extrusions are pushed up against the pews at the old altar end of the building. Their bright globes engage the pews in conversation, like an infant asleep against a favourite, gigantic toy. Look closely and you will see it move slightly. It reminds me of my cat, in a parallel universe, both richly living and blissfully unaware of its own fate. As it inflates it moves gently on its haunches as though it can’t believe its good luck to be alive.
At one end there is a tiny air vent. Put your face to it, feel its cool breath on your cheek, peer into its dayglow-lit insides and I dare you not to smile. It’s the first sculpture I’ve ever wanted to kiss.
INF23 is on show 2-28 September every day (10am-5pm) at Left bank Leeds and coincides with the Heritage Open Days festival and the Index visual arts festival. Click here for more info.
There is a closing party on 28 September from 7-11pm. A chance to say goodbye to this unique artwork, visitors will be treated to the sounds of DJ Andy Hickford from Downtown Science. The sculpture will be lit up for the night and drinks will be available. Places are limited. RSVP here.
Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.