The Tragic Saga of The Strange, Inflatable Man in San Francisco's Civic Center

Time is running out for the inflatable man. His precious seconds ticking upward in large blinking red numbers on an LED screen. Some passers-by stop to take-in the painfully slow demise - unaware that the writhing, thrashing figure with the frowny face is essentially pummeling himself into oblivion.

“It’s not that I thought about what the world needs is an air dancer chained to a lighted post,” smiled artist Jeremy Mende, the creator behind the strange display.

This scene playing-out across from San Francisco City Hall — in the tiny S.F. Arts Commission gallery — is a metaphor for something. At least that’s what’s implied by the piece’s title — “this is a metaphor.”

The art work consists of an inflatable man, like those flowing, smiling wind walkers you’d find pulsating in front of a car lot. Except Mende had his customized with a sad face, with its ropes tethered to a glowing post.

“On the surface it’s about the things we tie ourselves to that give us identity but also limit our freedom,” Mende said.

A generator pumped an endless flow of air into the inflatable man - inspiring a frenetic, spastic fit that will continue round the clock. The clock kept track as the seconds and hours ticked by. The art work is scheduled for a three-month run - or as long as the man holds out.

“The man will slowly deteriorate over the course of the installation,” Mende revealed. “It’s going to destroy itself.”

The installation, tucked into the gallery’s unassuming art space, came as a surprise to pedestrians not expecting to stumble across a thrashing inflatable man - laboring toward his own expiration. Some walked, ignoring the histrionics unfolding in the corner of the eye. Some did double-takes. That’s the charm of the gallery.

“What’s special about this space is you can never go inside as the public,”said Meg Shiffler of the S.F. Art’s Commission. “But millions of people see these installations.”

The gallery displays about three installations a year - but its interior remains off-limits to the public because the building isn’t earthquake safe, a risk that bore little concern for the inflatable man.

“It always takes people by surprise,” Shiffler said. “In a great way.”

Mende envisioned the installation, taking in the design specifications for the inflatable man - and concluding that it would probably wear out before the end of the installation’s run. Until then, he speculated the violent rumination of the inflatable man would cause visitors to take stock of their own existence - or whatever thought an inflatable man’s struggle might inspire.

“At 11:30 on a Tuesday night,” said Mende, “you remember that little man is still struggling against that anchor somewhere out in the city.”

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