Play as a Defense Mechanism in Oldenburg’s Ice Bag

     Hailed as Claes Oldenburg’s most complex art project, Ice Bag involved several corporations, programmers, engineers, and workers who went through “living hell” to realize Oldenburg’s vision for its exhibition at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. Yet the narrative of labor in the creation of Ice Bag is hidden within its softly undulating folds. Oldenburg’s concealment of the work’s complex technological processes within the sculptural form manifested his reserve towards industry. For Oldenburg, technology was “an activity which in every way denies the freedom and the pleasure of being an artist” and a medium whose growing omnipresence in the artist’s surroundings demanded attention (Tuchman et. al, 266). Through Ice Bag, Oldenburg sought to harness the tools of technology for his artistry and conceal its cold metallic complexity within the Ice Bag’s playful and life-like form. Presented as a non-threatening soft sculpture reminiscent of children’s toys, Ice Bag rendered the harshness of the technology obsolete, creating a playful space for technology to serve art.

     Oldenburg’s attitude was representative of the majority of artists participating in the Art and Technology Program, which sought to engage artists and industry in a reciprocal exchange. According to Maurice Tuchman, the curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), almost every artist de-emphasized the influence of the machine and a “character of restraint and esthetic sureness” was prevalent throughout the collaborative works (29). From the very beginning, Oldenburg displayed a skepticism of allying himself with industry. When Tuchman sent artists the contract, Oldenburg was not one of those who consented immediately. Instead, he wrote Tuchman a lengthy list of criticisms, demanding increased artistic autonomy, ownership, and clarity in the relationship between museum, industry, and artist. Tuchman and LACMA heralded the program as supporting artists, granting them resources to realize “artistic inventions of the grandiose type which generally exist beyond sketches of models” (44). All parties involved in the program realized the potential benefit it offered to them. Claes later admitted Ice Bag was the “most complex piece I’ve ever done” (Tuchman et. al, 264). Yet for Oldenburg, the program was especially dangerous to artists, for it threatened to blur the line between art and technology, two fields which have frequently been at opposition.

     The playfulness of Ice Bag was Oldenburg’s defense mechanism against the perceived threat of industry. In his video called “Sort of a Commercial for an Ice Bag” directed by Michel Hugo, Oldenburg explains the element of play in his work. Set against carnivalesque background music, Oldenburg explores the movement of the ice bag in his own body, evoking a sense of experimental playfulness. Adorno argues that “children are not so much, as Hebbel thought, subject to illusions of captivating ‘variety’, as still aware, in their spontaneous perception, of the contradiction between phenomenon and fungibility that the resigned adult no longer sees, and they shun it. Play is their defence” (253). This childish refusal of the limitations that accompany adulthood is evident in the way that Oldenburg hid the complexity of Ice Bag’s internal mechanisms its three motors, six fans, and fourteen months of labor into toy form. Like a little toy truck which travels nowhere and does nothing productive, Ice Bag abides as an allegory for utility and does not present itself as an object for consumption. Rather, Ice Bag plays with a Duchampian worldview and its ability to act as referent for like forms prompts the viewer’s imagination. In the video, Oldenburg explains the specificity of the ice bag as a useful object is not as significant as its similitude to rotund forms including the capitol building in Washington, the cupola at St. Peters, sponges, a stomach, and a crab. In these playful ways, Ice Bag explores material under release and tension. Oldenburg is like the child which Roland Barthes describes for us, who “does not in any way create meaningful objects…he creates life, not property: objects now act by themselves, [which can claim autonomy and rebel against commodification] they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand” (40). Imbued with life through the hand of the artist and powered by technology, Ice Bag promoted art as an escape from material economic implications and sought a return to nature.

     For Oldenburg, the appearance of being natural rather than artificial marks a higher cultural value. Oldenburg stated “I would take complexity that technology can provide and direct it towards a simple solution that would equate it more with nature” (Tuchman et. al, 266). He expressed the desire to give birth to nature through the machine. This desire is in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s concept of second technik, where technology enables an opening up of production to creative autonomy. Second technik empowers man with control over the manifestation of technology in its interactions with him (Osborne, 397). Motivating factors of second technik include play and experimentation, both of which are important in Oldenburg’s Ice Bag. This interplay between natural forces and productive forces arises in Oldenburg’s reflections on his work in the way that the form seems to sit perfectly at the juncture between natural and unnatural, soft and hard, rigid and flexible. Oldenburg compares its form to the synthesis of hard human head and soft human body. The stiff fiberglass cap binds Ice Bag’s flaccid body which envelops its motivating engines and fans, much like the way the skin of the human body encloses and hides its internal organs. Its multitude of associations with the body recall the work from the danger of reproducing the Marxist problem of alienation, where “the worker alienates himself in an act of production that from the outset belongs to another, with the consequence that the product that incorporates his labor faces him as a strange and lifeless object in which he cannot recognize himself”. Initially, it seems Ice Bag achieves a natural appearance at the expense of the bodies of the workers involved in its creation. Yet the implicit presentation of the body in Ice Bag’s form subverts the process of alienation: we can recognize ourselves in the reflective metal cap of the ice bag, hear it utter life-like sounds, breathe as we hear the bag breathe, and watch as it undulates like a unicellular organism. As we experience the Ice Bag, we cannot help but associate its form with toys, that which prefigures the world of adult functions for children (Barthes, 39).

     Perhaps Ice Bag sits squarely at the juncture where Oldenburg decided to grow up. Benjamin suggests that “art as a form of play is the sphere where a reconciliation of tensions is practiced” (Osborne 398). Ice Bag mediated Oldenburg’s relationship with technology and physically manifests his critical attitude towards it during the Art and Technology program. While Oldenburg was initially skeptical of allying himself with industry, after the realization of Ice Bag, Oldenburg experienced a personal transformation.  “‘Art,’ he said, was basically a ‘matter of childhood,’ while ‘technology concerns adulthood. His original reluctance to interact with corporations had to do, he now believes, with the fears that attend responsibility. Oldenburg now affirms the necessity to take such responsibility” (Tuchman et. al, 269). His ensuing description of the transformation an artist must undergo in order to become a successful collaborator with technology is a far cry from his initial protest to Tuchman’s contract. His description strikes parallels to the characteristics of a blue collar worker under the Taylorist model of scientific management. To address the primary dilemma of his time, that is, to mend the disparity between machine and nature, the artist must change his identity. He must transform from a proud, impulsive, uncooperative entity into a Schmidt persona: a restrained, self-effacing, and sober drone. At the conclusion of his collaboration in the Art and Technology program, technology, that which colonizes art through its administrative logic, seems to have converted Oldenburg.  


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. “Toy Shop.” Extracts from Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. New York City: Routledge, 2000. 253-54. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “Toys.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Vintage (UK), 2009. 39-40. Print.

Osborne, Peter. “The Work of Art.” Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory. London: Routledge, 2005. 396-401. Print.

Sort of a Commercial for an Icebag. Dir. Michel Hugo. Perf. Claes Oldenburg. Cinematographie Saarinen Associates, 1970. Video.

Tuchman, Maurice, et. al. A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Rep. no. 74- 146884. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971. Web.



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