When Alejandro Mendoza flies, his carry-on luggage includes the usual items: a toothbrush, spare eyeglasses, a 35-foot sculpture.
As the creator of a nomadic public art exhibit called "Giants in the City," the Cuban-born, Miami-based artist totes massive inflatable sculptures to urban spaces around the world. But when there isn't a show in Monaco, Aruba, or Mexico City, the sculptures — a nearly 50-foot arm grasping for downtown towers, a cloud pulled down from the sky and trapped beneath a net, and others — are deflated, wrapped in cling film, and piled under a desk in the backroom of Mendoza's Little River studio. They look like a cross between forgotten wash-and-fold bundles and steamer trunks from some lumpy alternate universe plastered with airline destination tags.
"I began in 2008 with a single 18-foot sculpture that I thought was massive," Mendoza says. It was a large baby bottle upholstered in cow spots and squirting a slick of milk that visitors could lounge on. "Now, though, we have giants that are taller than four-story buildings."
His studio has enough paint spattered on the floor that he could probably pry the tiles loose and sell them to collectors. A haze of incense and Salem smoke hangs low among the knickknacks that are raw materials for his mixed-media wall sculptures. ("No one wants to fill a house with coffee tables, but homes are made of walls," he explains.) There's a shelf with glasses — more shot glasses than any other kind — for visitors to use, and the front door is blocked by a pile of white and gray fabric.
"I love this," Mendoza says. "Look at what it is." He taps a thick, tanned finger on a photograph of a white-and-gray pyramid small enough that it could hide under the mound of fabric and no one would be the wiser. Though some of the "Giants" are Mendoza's own designs, most are collaborations with artists who need Mendoza's technical knowledge to turn an idea into, say, a colossal love seat that can hold 15 people and requires a ladder. In the case of the pyramid, it will be filled with lights of shifting colors and intensities.
"It's really tricky to design something soft," Mendoza explains. "You have to control air to get a shape, and flat shapes don't exist when you fill something with air. Convex shapes don't exist. And sometimes you need to design something inside the Giant, a smaller Giant, to get the shape you want."
Mendoza and his artists have faced some unusual design challenges. Allison Kotzig might be best known in Miami for her dioramas of ravenous, anthropomorphized vaginas. It was a subject to which she had hoped to return for this weekend's exhibition in Bayfront Park. The show is part of DWNTWN Art Days, a three-day festival of more than 125 tours, panels, and often-unclassifiable art events held in downtown Miami and sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority.
"The original idea was for it to be something really colorful with moving legs. Because it was so big, people would just think it was a spider, not a giant scary vagina monster," she says wistfully, sounding farther away than her studio in Slovakia, where we reached her by phone.
Alas, the limitations of the materials and physics prevented families from picnicking in the shade of a looming legged sex organ. So Kotzig looked elsewhere, to the ubiquitous hedges she has seen in Palm Beach. Her massive inflatable hedge "deals with the barriers between social classes — barriers that not only keep people from looking in but also prevent the people who live inside them from looking out."
Kotzig has subverted that barrier by cutting a window into her hedge and, at least in the Monaco edition of "Giants in the City," children in particular enjoyed climbing on and through it.
"With most public art," Mendoza says, "you know it is expensive. Usually it's very heavy. They are made to outlast you, and it's easy to be afraid of them. And they are 'important,' so you can't touch them.
"But the first reaction people have to the Giants is to touch them. It's fabric and air, and the air is the same air you breathe. I think they remind you of when you were a kid, of balloons and balls and the things you play with. And now you're bigger, but you're in front of an even bigger toy and you can play with that."
From arrival onsite to a full installation, Mendoza is now practiced enough to install a dozen Giants in less than three hours. Speed is important to him because it means someone passing an empty Bayfront Park on her way to work might walk through during lunch and find it magically full of strange and colorful shapes. As a contrast, think of Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer's 340-ton boulder that took 11 nights and an estimated $10 million to install in Los Angeles. Parties gathered by the roadside to toast the rock and take pictures with it as it passed.
"The Giants can talk about ideas without the weight of history," Kotzig says, "as opposed to something permanent or in a city square that might have its own importance."
T. Wheeler Castillo, an artist and codirector of Turn-Based Press, will lead art walking tours this weekend that are, like "Giants in the City," part of the annual DWNTWN Art Days. One of the stops he'll make is at George Sánchez-Calderón's CenTrust, a reclaimed 15,000-pound chunk of granite with the scandalized savings and loan's logo carved into it that Sánchez-Calderón installed on a downtown sidewalk late last year.
"It was being saved to use as granite for a countertop, but George, knowing about its connection to this really dark part of Miami history, decided to use it for something else, as a signifier," Castillo says. "It was a piece of our history before, and now it is becoming a piece of our city in a new way."
Back in his studio, as a cigarette burns in an ashtray, Mendoza uses the hem of his old skateboard shirt to clean a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He enjoys that his installations encourage people to form ad hoc communities and believes their literal and figurative lightness allows them to engage people in a way wholly separate from what one has come to expect of large-scale public art.
"In Aruba, I remember a lot of people sitting on the grass with their backs against the Giants, reading or chatting on their phones," Mendoza says. "They just wanted to be close to them, I think."
Many of the sculptures inspire interactivity. One by Cuban artist Angel Vapor includes an interior chamber that visitors can lounge in as the blower whips air around them. Miami artist Yamel Molerio has created a 45-foot-long, 15-foot-tall wall designed to be tagged and painted by street artists as it travels around the world.
"You just need to turn off the blower, and the landscape is going to be the same as it was before," Mendoza says. "We're so impermanent, but hopefully, we are permanent in your mind."
He pauses to exhale cigarette smoke and watch the plume change shape in his studio's lights.
"When I visit Bayfront Park during the rest of the year and the Giants aren't there," he says, "it's missing something. Right now, it's empty."