‘I am for an art … that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,’ stated Claes Oldenburg in 1961. With the production of his mechanised ‘Icebags’ in 1971 this desire was realised. Icebag—scale B moves almost imperceptibly in the exhibition space, slowly winding and undulating this way and that, creating the rather eerie sensation that it is following one around the room. The soft, amorphous folds of bright yellow nylon lend the object an organic feel as it gently, almost reassuringly, ‘breathes’.
With works such as Icebag—scale B, Oldenburg was at the forefront of the avant-garde sculpture that transformed art in the 1960s. Soft sculpture was Oldenburg’s preferred medium and he is widely credited as the catalyst for the movement, which evolved out of the soft, oversized props he created for performances at the Ray Gun theatre in New York City in the early 1960s. Oldenburg’s art has always been preoccupied with the ordinary, and his subjects are consistently taken from his immediate surroundings. This practice of elevating humble, everyday objects to the realm of high art has its origins in the Surrealist obsession with the objet trouvé (found object), the readymade tradition set in train by Marcel Duchamp. In Icebag—scale B the Surrealists’ absurdist disregard for scale and functionality is married to a Pop art fixation on consumerism. Forfeiting functionality for style, the everyday utilitarian object—the icebag—becomes an ideal, reversing the original Modernist dictum that form must follow function; here, function follows form.
Icebag—scale B is a variant of Oldenburg’s first mechanised sculpture, Giant icebag,which he created for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. Harnessing technology to realise the movement of the ‘icebags’, Oldenburg was able ‘to take something which is formidable in its complexity, and make it do some very foolish thing—I sort of like the idea that all this time and effort was spent on the Icebag.’ And, indeed, much time and effort was spent on the creation of the very complex work: over 14 months were devoted to the collaboration between Oldenburg, Gemini GEL and Krofft enterprises. Although the icebags are identical, each of the 25 examples in the edition was individually assembled and fitted with the specially designed hydraulic system that regulates inflation and deflation. For Oldenburg, who is particularly concerned with ‘movement and the conversion of states’, the resultant works were well worth the long process.
Oldenburg’s soft sculptures―mechanised or not―never simply ‘sit on their arses’. Fashioned from malleable materials, and ranging in size from miniature to mammoth, the works take on their own life and exist in a constant state of flux. In Icebag—scale B this idea is taken to its extreme: distending and deflating like a lung, the object goes beyond its utility as a therapeutic aid, to become an uncanny extension of the body itself.
Brooke Babington and Emilie Owens
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
 The artist, 1961, cited in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in theory: 1900–2000, Blackwell Publishing, New York, 2005, p 744
 The artist, 1971, quoted in Claes Oldenburg, Claes Oldenburg: an anthology, Guggenheim & National Gallery of Art, New York & Washington, 1995, p 323
 Cited at http://www.tate.org.uk accessed March 2009
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )