Lighter than Air but Too Heavy for the Mall

In March, I stopped by Place, an installation gallery on the third floor of Pioneer Place Mall, to drop off copies of PDX Magazine and to say hello to the gallery’s owner Gabe Flores. My young boys who were with me were quickly drawn toward the mass of colorful balloons that were part of the main exhibit.Curtains of multi-colored latex balloons framed the installation, and many more rolled around on the floor. Along the back wall, a video played on a flat-screen television. In the video, a man in a dog costume walked along a trail. There were other artifacts in the exhibit too, and I made a mental note to return later to take it all in when my parking meter wasn’t running dangerously low. I did not know at the time that this innocuous-looking installation would be the last exhibit for Place and that it would figure prominently in the gallery’s demise. Shit Balloons is the name of the installation by artist John Dougherty. And, yes, from what we can ascertain, it contributed to Place losing its lease rather abruptly at the end of March. This exhibit, as well as two others: Paul Clay’s Parking Lot Dance and Michael Reinsch’s A High Improbability of Death: A Celebration of Suicide, drew media attention after Flores announced that Place had lost its lease, and published correspondence between himself and the mall management.What got lost in all the commotion is the artwork itself. Hardly inappropriate to the casual viewer, the crux of Dougherty’s exhibit was not covered in the press, other than to describe individual artifacts: carboys of canine fecal matter in plastic bags, video of the artist collecting the aforementioned specimens in Forest Park for the exhibit, and so on. To the deliberate eye, however, Shit Balloons offered a whimsical and absurdist look at the economy of waste.

PDX Magazine managing editor Charity Heller interviewed Dougherty and Flores about the installation and about Place closing its doors.

— Ross Blanchard, Editor-in-chief

Article by Charity Heller
Photographs by Ross Blanchard

John Dougherty’s art tells a story, and it goes like this: You walk into a mall, maybe to check out the spring collection of Kate Spade handbags. You pass by a gallery. A man wearing a dog costume peeks out, surrounded by colorful balloons, and smiles at you. He wants to talk. If this were a choose-your-own-adventure story, you (depending who you are) might continue on to the handbags—because this genial, costumed artist is having a conversation about dog-shit bags, consumerism, and cognitive dissonance.

It first takes time to understand that John’s work is parts of a larger story at all. And it takes yet more time to construct the story.

John Dougherty. Photo by Ross Blanchard

Artist John Dougherty

There’s the costume, and the balloons. A video that plays reassuringly in the background. But grown men in dog costumes are unnerving—without context—and these balloons are no ordinary balloons. They are filled with methane, produced alchemically from dog shit bags (DSBs) stuffed into carboys.

As you wander to the back of the room, the balloons temporarily block the view of two methane-producing DSB-filled carboys. And only after that do you see the shit print. Dougherty positioned it at the back of the exhibit, as a revelatory moment for the viewer. You don’t think discarded bags full of dog poop can ever be art? What if they were put between sheets of clear plastic, run over the by the artist’s car, framed, and hung in a gallery? Wouldn’t it be funny if they became art, then?

Dougherty’s installation, Shit Balloons, hung in the now-shuttered Place, on the third floor of Pioneer Place Mall—until the mall declined to renew Place’s lease on March 31. The gallery is now closed.

Former Place gallery owner and curator Gabe Flores is opening a new gallery, Surplus Space, a residential gallery that moonlights as his house. He has dedicated space set aside and totally bare, anticipatory walls. The rest of the Spartan northeast house is essentially His Life, the exhibit. Flores approached Dougherty about exhibiting his work because Flores likes to play the game, Wouldn’t It be Funny If…? Wouldn’t it be funny if the dishes in the sink were tagged and labeled in spidery Victorian handwriting? Mixed Media: Bread Crumbs, Butter and Jam, on Corelle. Flores loves artists who take commonplace things and ask more of them. The more absurd the better.

Keyon Gaskin performing at the closing event of Place. Photo by Ross Blanchard

Keyon Gaskin performing at the closing event of Place

It is easy, then, to understand Flores’ attraction to Dougherty’s work.

What goes through a person’s head, Dougherty wonders, when he throws away garbage?

“What would make that person actually want to keep DSBs?” the artist asks. “If it was gold, or candy, would he leave it behind? No, because there’s an economy behind gold and candy—no one would discard that. Well, maybe I can turn these DSBs into art objects to create an economy around them? Could they become more valuable? Or does trying to make DSBs into art make art less valuable?” That Place gallery was housed in the tony tourist-trafficked Pioneer Place Mall was another level of marvelous absurdity, another fact upon which Dougherty and Flores agree.The layers of Dougherty’s work give the viewer opportunity to pause, laugh, consider, discuss. He credits experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold and Piero Manzoni by way of precedent.


Prior to Shit Balloons, Dougherty created Future Islands, an instillation that floats on DSBs also found discarded in Forest Park. He was inspired by a lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art by Jay Harmen, a bio-mimic inventor. Biomimicry looks to the natural world for engineering solutions. Harmen’s lecture discussed the large trash island floating in the Indian Ocean. Dougherty had the idea of a fantasy island, an absurd conceptual idealization of littering: What did you think happened when you tossed these out? Did you think they floated down the river to a magical land, where they violated the laws of physics by being winked out of existence?

But what if people did pick up their DSBs from Forest Park and disposed of them in the garbage? The bags would still exist. They wouldn’t go away. They’d just be somewhere else.

Dougherty explains his exhibit as a joke: Initially the artist himself is the butt of the joke because he’s wearing a dog costume. Look at that crazy guy! But ultimately, when the viewer reaches the print at the back, it dawns on her what surrounds her—and it’s threatening. This point of reveal turns the joke back on the viewer, who will either take a well-considered stance on consumerism, or live with the cognitive dissonance of not wanting to be surrounded by dog shit, yet contributing to it.

Shit Balloons was not intended to be on display in a mall. And Flores’ exhibits have never been inclined to operate through shock value. But for mall-goers, entering a conversation about hyper-consumerism might not be on the agenda regardless.

That’s OK. The instillation was in a gallery, not in the middle of the food court.

Still, it was the mall.

But, the purpose of art…

…and viva la dissonance!

In addition to Surplus Space gallery, which has dedicated space for instillations, video, and conversations-as-art, Gabe Flores is an artist himself. The human body is the medium in his next project, Cavity Search, a three-course exhibit in which viewers, doubling as the medium, participate with their olfactory senses. (

John Dougherty’s current work involves garden bed as instillation, complete with a man-sized carrot costume, three-dimensional printed carrots, worm-casings-as-art, and a beautiful experimental garden. (

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