An ode to the airbag, 2019, is a kinetic standing lamp comprising automotive airbags by Zimbabwe-born Melbourne-based artist Jonathan Ben-Tovim. Conversations between the artist and the NGV Conservation team have proved invaluable, not only to ensure the work is cared for during display, but to guarantee it can be enjoyed well into the future.
As artists explore and adopt new technology and materials, their experimentation and subsequent choices form a creative provenance for an artwork that can be a useful resource when planning for and making decisions about its conservation and long-term care.
For older artworks or where an artist is not contactable, we might speculate on aspects of the work from reviewing historical records, or from observing the function and materiality directly. For contemporary artworks, however, we would ideally collect these details directly from the artist through interviews, questionnaires and discussions. This direct engagement can also result in a two-way exchange of information that benefits both the artist and the museum, as the conservator can provide feedback and context on the long-term implications of material choices and fabrication methods, that may be useful to the artist in the creation of future works. This was the case when Jonathan Ben -Tovim’s An ode to the airbag, 2019, entered the NGV Collection. It is a structurally intriguing work that comprises a central metal pole with a tripod-footed base, which is attached to a closed black box by way of a mesh-covered tube. Around the pole are nine horizontal-welded posts, each terminating with a deflated fabric form–a disembodied automotive airbag. On display, viewers can observe the airbags gradually inflate into pillow-like discs, illuminated from within by a soft LED glow. Disconcertingly these gentle kinetic actions occur simultaneously with a raucous soundtrack, a sudden sixty-second burst of noise from a hidden pump, before the work again falls dark and silent in a four-minute cycle.
My conversations with Ben-Tovim, focused particularly around the sourcing and selection of the final components used, to build a narrative of his artistic process and the development of the work. Commercial airbags, when triggered in motor vehicle accidents, are deployed in 0.04 seconds by a combination of movement sensors, pyrotechnics, chemical reactions and propellants. They are a single-use product designed to both inflate and collapse at high speed, then be discarded once they have served their purpose. Conversely, in this artwork they slowly inflate and deflate in an endless cycle that Ben-Tovim described as ‘a slow- motion explosion’. 1
The airbags were sourced from an automotive wrecker, with no significance to the particular vehicles they were sourced from or the model, other than they needed to have light-coloured fabric so that the LEDs would be visible inside them. There is no valve on the airbags, and although they were ‘patched’ by the artist to retain air pressure for as long as possible, they are not airtight, and gradually they deflate in between pump cycles. Ben-Tovim explored different systems for the repeated inflation of the airbags, but it was found that a simple commercial airbed pump worked best to deliver the required air volume. The pump operation is very loud, however the noise itself is not considered a central feature of the work.
Artworks that generate sudden loud noise or action can be problematic to display in shared gallery spaces. They can startle unsuspecting visitors and can interfere with the experience of neighbouring works, so the exhibition design must allow for this. Conservators will often conduct acoustic testing prior to display, as well as an assessment of the potential vibration effects on neighbouring works. While developing An ode to the airbag, Ben-Tovim reported that he researched acoustic control systems and made several design versions to explore and compare sound dampening options. The final pump box design was a functional solution to both containing the pump and timer units, as well as reducing the volume.
It is important to consider surrounding works when light-based artworks are introduced to displays. In this instance, the light is filtered by the airbag fabric and therefore emits a safe amount of light in proximity to other works. Ben-Tovim’s use of LEDs is a consequence of both familiarity from using them in other works, as well as their physical form in low profile flexible strips which enabled them to be mounted in a circular array and still permit airflow within the bags. LED’s also have low temperature output, energy use and typically longer life than standard globes, which is an important feature when considering display maintenance and access. A domestic garden timer completes the assembly of An ode to the airbag and allows the work to be manually programmed using the on/off timings, while the power supply to the work matches the building’s operating hours. All the information collected through communications with Ben-Tovim now form an evolving biography of the work, which will become the reference point for all future display iterations, conservation decisions and treatment of An ode to the airbag over its lifetime.
Dianne Whittle is NGV Conservator of Objects. Ths article was originally published in the Jan-Feb 2021 NGV Magazine.
Jonathan Ben-Tovim, email correspondence with Dianne Whittle, 7 November 2020.