Shih Chieh Huang's 'Guardian of the Dysphotic' is just one of the eye-popping installations at Exploratorium's 'Inflatable.' (Jen Woo)

Balloon animals invade Exploratorium, spur LSD flashbacks in new 'Inflatable' exhibit

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As fanciful, kaleidoscopic, and highly Instagrammable immersive experiences continue to trend, museums are upping the ante on just how kooky and chromatic their exhibitions can get.

The latest to lay its cards on the table is the Exploratorium, where a flickering forest of luminous balloon organisms has been planted for the magical new exhibit, Inflatable: Expanding Works of Art.


Curated by Christopher Jobson, founder and EIC of the culture blog Colossal, Inflatable is an escape into an alternate reality, at the intersection of art and science, where your childhood curiosities bubble up and persuade you to rethink what forms art and nature can take.

A series of bouncy environments encourage a frolicsome good time, where you can see the world through an insect's eye from inside Pneuhaus's geodesic dome and squeeze between the puffy cylinders, lit from within, by artist Jimmy Kuehnle.

But first things first. When I arrived at the press preview on Friday, May 25th, the priority was clear: to get outfitted with an epic balloon hat (and a margarita)—to fit in with my surroundings (and post a zillion boomerangs to my Instagram).

At the exhibit's entrance, I was met with a looming, wobbly humanoid on bended knee; a few paces ahead, another billowing figure crouched down as if it were posing with the couple who stood between its arms taking selfies while a few kids ran between its legs. As part of artist Amanda Parer's project Fantastic Planet, the oversized inflatable people are designed to inspire us to consider our own size and impact on the planet. (You may also remember when the Australian artist's giant rabbits overtook Civic Center in 2016.)

As I made my way into the exhibit, a flailing hot pink cube with tangerine appendages and violet feet came careening down the hallway; I darted out of the way just in time and, with the ninja-like moves of a compulsive Millennial IGer, whipped out my iPhone to record it flying by. I feel like I'm on the set of Monsters, Inc.

Further psychedelia ensued as I entered Taiwanese artist Shih Chieh Huang's Guardian of the Disphotic (perhaps I'm actually in a Marvel comic), an undersea realm populated by a phosphorescent octopus with pudgy arms that lift and fall like a pulsing disco ball. Sensing its audience, the balloon mollusk begins to dance; we onlookers jumped and waved to keep the motion-sensored party going.

Breaking away from the spellbinding pull of the spidery neon beast, I wandered into Kuehnle's bouncy blue jungle of punching bags of sorts, where I spent a full 15 minutes wading and pushing through the huggable, shifting columns as kids (who, let's be honest, were mostly adults) bounced me around before I finally bopped on to the next thing: a menacing carnivorous plant called Cauldron Veil, created by Florida-based artist Jason Hackenwerth. Or rather, I bopped beneath it, as the wiggling overhead fixture threatened to swallow me up whole. Inspired by "universal biology," Hackenwerth's inflated sculptures mimic the organic nature of life: The artwork will slowly deflate over the course of the summer to mimic biological decomposition.

Though not part of Inflatable, I also had the chance to step inside Refik Anadol's Infinity Room, which will open to the public on June 14. A small and temporary immersive environment not totally unlike those of the famed Yayoi Kusama, the room seems to traverse time, space, and unknown dimensions though it is only maybe eight-by-eight feet at best.

Ready your iPhone X cameras—this is San Francisco's next IG darling. Here's a peek at what's in store.

Crouching figure by Amanda Parer.

(Jen Woo)

// Inflatable Expanding Works from May 26 through Sep 3, 2018 at Exploratorium, Pier 15 (Embarcadero); tickets ($30) are available at exploratorium.edu/inflatable. Infinity Room will open June 14 through July 15; tickets ($30) are available exploratorium.edu/visit/calendar/infinity-room.

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