Housed in a 100-year-old former factory in Minneapolis’s riverside warehouse district, the Soap Factory recalls a vanished industrial heyday with its 11-to-13-foot ceilings, wooden floors, and exposed pipes and patches of brick. It is a compelling space, and offers stiff competition for any installation. The Irish artist Clive Murphy, who is now based in New York, is the first in Soap Factory history (the space opened in 1995) to tackle the entire 12,000 square feet of exhibition space on his own. He is also astute enough to take advantage of his surroundings rather than attempt to distract from their character.
For “Almost Nothing,” his recent site-specific installation, Murphy used black trash bags to construct three giant inflatable sculptures (he showed similar but smaller works here in 2006). The structures—thick tubes attached both vertically and horizontally to form interlocking three-dimensional rectangular grids that reach almost to the ceiling—stood in three separate rooms on the vast ground floor, redefining their contours and complicating the space. The results conjured a jungle gym designed by Sol LeWitt. Murphy firmly anchored a form usually associated with weightlessness (think of other inflatables like Warhol’s Mylar balloons or Tim Hawkinson’s sweeping Überorgan). High-power electric fans inflated the sculptures while buzzing loudly in the background; the noise and strong air currents rendered the pieces surprisingly alive. Never uniformly straight or still, each reverberated at a low hum, pulled taut in some places and sagging gently in others. One imagined the whole thing collapsing at night to lie dormant, like a deflated balloon. This was makeshift minimalism, playful and active, accessible and—perhaps most important—able to withstand the unheated galleries during a Minnesota winter.
Rounding out the exhibition were 10 works on paper hung in a small room connecting two of the large galleries. Colorful and precise, they betrayed Murphy’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward art-historical precepts. An ink drawing of two clasped hands, for example, illustrates the written declaration that “Together we can End Relational Aesthetics!” In another, a black bear seems to have stumbled upon an object suspiciously suggestive of one of Murphy’s inflatables, which it considers inquisitively. The bear’s attitude permeates “Almost Nothing” as a whole: unpretentious and thoughtful.