The cast of colorful and eccentric characters populating downtown and Over-the-Rhine will inflate by one this Friday when performance artist Jimmy Kuehnle comes to town.
At first, he’ll look pretty normal just before his performance starts at noon Friday near Washington Park.
But within seconds, without warning, he’ll transform into … well, it’s hard to describe, actually. He’ll be concealed within an inflatable, 9-foot-tall, purple-banded pink cube with swaying hammer-like appendages coming on all sides. And then he — or should we say it? — will begin walking all over town. Weather permitting, that is: He can’t do this in high winds.
What exactly is he supposed to be? In three separate cities, strangely, this costume been taken by people as a visualization of the H1N1 virus.
“I don’t know how to describe it except saying people think it looks like a virus,” Kuehnle says by telephone from Chicago after completing a performance in Millennium Park.
Actually, the inflatable suit has a formal name — You Wear What I Wear. He has a good many other suits that he uses at other performances, with names like Walking Fish, Big Red, Kiss the Sky and Big Blob. (If he has time in Cincinnati, he may change into Big Red partway through his performance.) You Wear What I Wear has the advantage of having enough circulating air to keep him upright and balanced on mildly windy days.
The large suit is made of lightweight nylon and has two battery-powered fans inside it to continually blow and circulate air. The batteries are the heaviest aspect of the suit, weighing about 15 pounds. (He likes nylon because it’s soft in case people bump into him, though he has experimented with other materials.) He designed and sewed You Wear What I Wear at his studio in Albion, Mich., where he is artist-in-residence at Albion College.
“When I start a performance, I’ll have my backpack that has my batteries and duffle bag,” he says. “I’ll set it down and within five minutes I can be in my inflated suit. That’s the whole idea — you were a person walking down the street one minute, and now people see that you’re this strange creature. The whole point is to intervene in people’s everyday lives and have them have a consciousness shift. You want to bring an absurd sensibility, so their mind becomes vulnerable to new patterns of thought.”
He does not have a designated route or a set performance space.
“I just walk down the sidewalk and go where people are,” he explains, noting that his feet are free to move. “People do follow me, and I like that. But there’s no long-term commitment. People can get what they want from it in five seconds and then go away, or they can follow me for as long as they want.”
He is able to see through eye-level openings, but only in front of him. “I definitely can’t see behind me, so I spin a lot. It allows me to keep pace with my surroundings. It’s like the entire sculpture spins.”
By now, Kuehnle says, he’s gotten pretty good at negotiating his terrain.
“I can get caught on fences and signs and I’m always scared a truck will clip a piece of fabric,” he explains. “But I’ve been doing this enough I know where I can fit and how to get around different types of urban obstacles.”
Kuehnle, 30, had a knack for building things as a kid in St. Louis. That began to blossom when he was an undergraduate at Truman State University in Missouri. Later, he taughtEnglish in Japan before seeking a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of Texas at San Antonio.
“I started making bicycles, sculptures and public pieces and really enjoyed that,” Kuehnle says. “And after grad school, I got a Fulbright (scholarship) to go back to Japan. I couldn’t bring all this heavy steel stuff with me, but I still wanted to be out in public. So inflatables were the answer.”
He is not, it should be noted, the only artist working with inflatables as a medium. He mentions Paul McCarthy, a Californiabased conceptualist known for the provocative nature of his pieces and performances; balloon artist Jason Hackenworth of Grand Rapids and Kurt Perschke’s RedBall project, in which inflatable red balls are set up in cities around the world. It hasn’t yet gotten to the point, however, where two inflatable artists bump into each other in the same town.
Kuehnle is traveling with his wife, artist Mimi Kato, on this trip. The two of them tend to live where they have residencies (in New Mexico before Albion). Last summer, he performed in Finland. Next year he’ll be in Italy. Making connections is a beneficial byproduct of doing free performances like the one here on Friday.
At Albion College, the school wants him to show students how he sews his costumes and his bosses allow him to be free to do his work. The thinking is that it will inspire his students.
“It’s to show them how they can be their own gatekeeper,” says Kuehnle, a role model for would-be inflatable-suit wearers everywhere.