With Trump Baby Set To Fly, A Brief History of Inflatable Protest Art

‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a legitimate form of protest

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 11 JUL 18

It’s a big week for protest in London. First came the double resignation of Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who stormed out of the cabinet in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit plan. With May’s leadership under increasing threat, she will be looking for someone to hold her hand, so it’s just as well that Donald Trump is on his way to the UK for his first official visit, from 12–14 July, which will trigger a day of protest across the country on Friday 13 July. Demonstrations are planned at each stage in his visit: the Prime Minister’s official residence of Chequers; Blenheim Palace; and in central London, where 200,000 people are expected to march against the US President and the decision to invite him on a state visit. Friday will also see the maiden voyage of Trump Baby, a 6-metre-tall inflatable caricature of The Donald, which will rise up to 30 metres over Parliament Square.

The Trump Baby blimp being tested in London, 2018. Courtesy: Matt Bonner and Leo Murray

The application to fly the Trump Baby blimp over the city was initially refused by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, because the inflatable was ‘deemed to be art’, and therefore not ‘a legitimate protest’. After a petition supporting the big trolling blimp received more than 10,000 signatures, Khan’s spokesperson announced that the Mayor – famously no fan of Trump – had approved it, commenting that Khan ‘supports the right to peaceful protest [and] understands that this can take many different forms.’ The blimp will fly over Parliament Square on Friday 13 July from 9.30 to 11.30am.

Courtesy: Matt Bonner and Leo Murray

Matt Bonner, who designed Trump Baby and came up with the idea for it with climate campaigner Leo Murray, told me there was an artistic motivation behind the project, and that the pair consider art and activism to be ‘completely intertwined’. They designed the orange inflatable with small hands and a ‘constipated grimace’ to mock Trump because ‘he doesn’t seem to be affected by the moral outrage that comes from his behaviour and his policies. You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him.’ Bonner sees Baby Trump as part of a rich genre of inflatables used as protest art, citing the work of Artúr van Balen, who has been making inflatables since 2010, when El Martillo / The Hammer, a ten-metre-long silver hammer made in collaboration with the Eclectic Electric Collective was folded into a suitcase and sent to Cancún, Mexico to be inflated for a protest at the UN Climate summit.

Courtesy: Matt Bonner and Leo Murray

Given the reticent itinerary for Trump’s UK visit – his presence in London will be limited to a night spent at the fenced-off residence of the US Ambassador in Regent’s Park – it is unlikely that he will see his inflatable caricature in person, although he will certainly know about it. The blimp probably won't prompt a sudden awakening and deter him from his puerile and destructive course, but for a brief few hours at least, those who oppose him will be able to experience a little bit of levity.

A Brief History of Recent Inflatable Protest Art

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017, installation view, 21st Sydney Biennale,  2018. Courtesy: the artist and Sydney Biennale

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017
Ai Weiwei's gigantic Law of the Journey (2017), a 60-metre-long black rubber dinghy carrying hundreds of inflatable human figures wearing life jackets, calls to mind the humanitarian disaster that results from the fortification of Europe’s southern coast. The latest in Ai’s engagement with the subject of migration and refugees, it prioritizes scale and visual impact to offer a blunt take on the issue, which Ai has addressed in different ways over the past few years, from his notorious 2016 self-portrait as the drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi to his more subtle documentary Human Flow (2017), which chronicles the movement refugee across 23 countries.

Lee Bul, Willing to be Vulnerable, 2015–16, installation view, Hayward Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and the Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Linda Nylind

Lee Bul’s Willing to be Vulnerable, 2015–16
Across the Thames from Parliament Square, Korean artist Lee Bul’s Willing to be Vulnerable (2015–16), on show at the Hayward Gallery, evokes the possibility of disaster more than protest. Speaking at the unveiling of the work at 2016 Biennale of Sydney, Bul drew a parallel between her giant silver blimp and the Hindenburg airship, which famously caught fire as it tried to dock in New Jersey in 1937, causing 36 fatalities, saying: ‘we know that story, it was a beautiful dream but it failed’. When on 29 May the private view for the show was cancelled an hour before it was due to open, my first thought was that the zeppelin had caught fire, but it was actually another work that went up in flames.

David Birkin, The Evidence of Absence, 2015. Courtesy: the artist

David Birkin, The Evidence of Absence, 2015
It’s not the first time artists have flown contentious inflatables in the skies over London. In 2015, David Birkin’s The Evidence of Absence, a replica of the military surveillance blimps used in Iraq and Afghanistan, went up over West London. The work is titled after Donald Rumsfeld’s gnomic pronouncement about Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, that ‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Such airships are part of a range of aerial surveillance units and drones used over militarized zones, border areas and increasingly over residential areas, with the aim of monitoring every last inch of the planet.

John Walter, Pug Virus, 2015, installation view, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Courtesy: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

John Walter, Pug Virus, 2015
An activist spirit permeates John Walter’s hot pink inflatable Pug Virus (2015). A carnivalesque representation of the HIV virus, created in light of recent advances in antiretroviral treatments, its appearance contrasts with depictions of the virus during the early years of the AIDS crisis. Walter says the inflatable, which was part of his 2015 project ‘Alien Sex Club’ (which I curated), allowed him ‘to make something large-scale and permanent but easy to transport and store’. Inflatables, he says, have a special ‘kind of magic, akin to stop-frame animation because they seem to defy the laws of physics somehow.’

Mark Leckey, Felix the Cat, 2013, installation view, MOMA PS1, New York, 2016–17. Courtesy: the artist and MOMA PS1, New York

Mark Leckey, Felix the Cat, 2013
This cartoonish quality is something Mark Leckey has explored in several works featuring Felix the Cat, including the large inflatable Felix the Cat, 2013. His interest in the character hinges on the fact that in 1919 the cartoon cat was the first subject to be broadcast, launching a juggernaut of developments in the media and changes in attitudes and behaviours. Leckey’s inflatable Felix the Cat has appeared in galleries and museums around the world, standing proud, slumped in the corner, or squeezed into an art fair booth.

Jeremy Deller, Sacrilege, 2012, installation view, Greenwich, London. Commissioned by the Glasgow International Festival and the Mayor of London. Courtesy: the artist, Art: Concept, Paris and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; photograph: Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, Sacrilege, 2012
On the ground, inflatable art has tended to be more whimsical, summoning up associations with carnivals and circuses, as in the case of Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege (2012). A bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge, it premiered at Glasgow International festival and then toured the UK. But the work also performs an egalitarian, democratic function: by delivering his air-filled version of the UK’s best-known prehistoric monument to communities across the country, Deller brought a national icon to people who might not otherwise have access to the real thing. Admission to Stonehenge costs £17. Bouncing around Sacrilege? Free.

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.