An Interview with Jimmy Kuehnle

Megan Lykins Reich: How did you approach designing the sculpture’s form? Are there any references that inspired its shapes and protrusions? How did the architecture influence your design choices? 

Jimmy Kuehnle: I wanted to fill the space with form and mass. I think that inflatables are very interesting when you are inside one. When you're inside an inflatable, the lack of 90-degree angles and natural architectural forms really makes for a surreal experience, and I enjoy it very much. Some of my original ideas were based on an inflatable that would completely fill the space and only leave spots for people to stand with the work enveloping them.  Lights would shine down from above indicating the spots that would be safe in the sculpture, as it would come down and surround that entire area.  Some of the first designs included these all-encompassing sections. Some were only (in theory) three feet high, so they would require squatting and not have enough room for a standing adult. There were also passageways that required visitors to meander through the inflatable.

The logistics of this idea were not feasible, however, so in this case, the zigzag protrusions are my attempt at making a surreal, absurd, abstract atmosphere in the environment.

The architecture influenced my design by its very shape.  MOCA Cleveland’s building has a very hard feeling, so I wanted something soft and overwhelming to shove up against these rigid architectural elements. I started with a 3D model of the Kohl Atrium that I built from CAD plans of the original building. I designed shapes that would fill that space in different ways. Some design decisions such as the height of the steel armature that supports the piece, as well as the sharp angle of the railings, had to be sculpted around. I also wanted to press against the sloping glass on the Museum’s exterior. 


MLR: Why pink?

JK: I like pink. The Museum’s interior color palette is blue, black, and white—very cold on the interior aside from the yellow interior stairs. Of course, this is by design. In a museum, the artworks are meant to be highlighted. I wanted to have something that really juxtaposed that blue steel, something warm and illuminating and glowing. That limited the piece to colors such as red, orange, yellow, or pink; no blues, no greens, no purples.  Also, nylon fabric only comes in a limited color palette. You can have any color custom made, but why reinvent the wheel when they sell hot pink fabric?


MLR: Describe if and how your impression of MOCA Cleveland’s architecture changed while making and installing, Please, no smash.

JK: My experience of the architecture changed as I made the digital model for the initial ideation and sketches. As I was making the 3D model, I kept second-guessing myself, thinking, "That can't be where that is," or "It can't really be that angle."  Everything seemed so strange as I recreated it in digital form and filled it with ideas and sculptures. Then I double-checked those ideas in reality by measuring the physical space. My model was within an inch or so of the building, which makes sense because there are adjustments that occur during construction. I learned to appreciate and experience the architecture of MOCA Cleveland much more. I also learned how difficult it is to work on a lift, especially since there was always something just out of reach. Often I thought, “It's just over there, but I can’t get there, because there is a reverse cantilever sloping piece of glass.” 


MLR: Upon first read, the title Please, no smash. seems to be a request from either you or the sculpture itself (to the viewer, assumedly). However, installed in the Museum, I suddenly read it as an appeal by the building to the sculpture, a plea for the work to keep its distance (which it obviously ignores). Talk about the title—how did you come to it, and has its meaning changed for you over time?

JK: I like titles that make people like you curious, but also offer the potential for the viewer’s own interpretation by having some sort of call-to-action for the audience. Yes, Please, no smash. is definitely a request to not be smashed by the art. It also is a request from the sculpture not to be smashed. It could be interpreted as an impression or request from the building. But you can’t really smash it: if you press on it, it will pop back. Because the sculpture will sometimes go down towards the audience, it may very well be the audience pleading, “Please don't smash.” as well as the building as it comes towards the glass. 


MLR: During installation, you mentioned that Please, no smash. converges many previous works—both in form and function—into one ginormous installation. What surprises did you encounter during the process of planning, constructing, and installing this work? Can you estimate its influence on your future inflatables, or work in general?

JK: When I work on projects, I always like to learn things and have new experiences. I don't want to just repeat things I know. So I set up challenges, situations that require me to learn new techniques, skills, and processes, to use new materials, to know something that I don't know now, in order to make the work. Yet, I don't want to plunge into the darkness or “jump off a cliff,” so these unknowns are usually extensions or variations on themes that I already understand. 

For this work, I focused on several themes and processes that I partially understood, and extended them all into unknown territory. I combined them into a single artwork so that all those unknowns, combined into a new work, would add up to something very new for me. 

Although this work is heavily planned from start to finish and executed according to plan, it still had many different surprises. For example, my interest in the space originally came from seeing Michelle Grabner's sculpture, Grabner/Killam Family Summer 2013 (2013) hanging from the ceiling.  I thought to myself, "Great, you can hang stuff there," only to find out after initial planning that the ceiling was not an option in this case. So I decided to cantilever off the wall and use brackets on the metal railings. The form had to be redesigned to accommodate that style of armature rather than anchors coming from the ceiling. I had to learn a bit about electronics, mechanical winches, sailing blocks (pulleys) and stage rigging rope as I worked on the piece— things that I did not expect to be researching.  I had to learn the open-source Arduino micro-controller programming platform as well as some other electronics to get the sculpture to work. There are many surprises and setbacks along the way, but that's part of the fun of working on a site-specific piece.

Most times, when I finally finish an inflatable, I swear I won't make one for a while. But they're so much fun! Somehow this center of gravity keeps pulling me back. I think that I will incorporate more kinetic effects in future projects. This is not the first time that I've used illumination, and I will continue to do that because it provides different views of the sculpture at night and day. And I'll probably continue making things with an ON and OFF button.

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