Exploring air, politics, pollution & the planet
International Airspace, David Rickard
In May 2022 Wellcome Collection opens In the Air, a new exhibition exploring our relationship with air and what it tells us about the health of our planet. It will bring together historical materials and contemporary artworks by artists including Tacita Dean, David Rickard, Dryden Goodwin and Forensic Architecture to examine the connections between the atmosphere and the planet, investigate the geopolitics of air, and uncover the secrets of the air we breathe.
Air is largely invisible and yet integral to our existence. It moves freely across borders and through bodies, resisting our attempts to define and contain it. As the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, air is a shared, intimate space that renders us vulnerable to infection. The exhibition will also explore how what we breathe has become a locus for questions concerning societal inequality and shared responsibility.
In the Air will open with A Roomful of Air (2022), a new site-specific work by David Rickard for Wellcome Collection, in which the weight of the air in the gallery will be represented in concrete bricks. The artist will calculate the amount of air contained within a room, including its altitude, humidity and warmth then render it as a solid mass of cubes, challenging our perceptions of the physicality of its presence.
Tacita Dean’s A Bag of Air (16mm, 3mins, 1995), will investigate the healing properties of air as the artist travels from the “terrestrial with the celestial”. As a hot air balloon ascends, the artist gives instructions for collecting a cloud and narrates historic and alchemical attempts to capture and distill air.
‘The Air Beneath Us’ will draw attention to the relationship between the air and the planet: in the ocean, in rocks, ice sheets and glaciers, all now irreversibly affected by climate emergency. It will include Gorner Glacier from On Top (2017), a series of porcelain sculptures created from drawings representing the fragments and gaps on the surface of a glacier, by Irene Kopelman. Kopelman will also show A tiny world and countless compositions in it (2019-2020), a series of watercolours of marine micro-organisms known as phyto-plankton, which play a critical role in producing the oxygen we breathe.
Microscopic life forms are present in the ancient Precambrian Stromatolites, fossilised blue-green algae, which at 3.5 billion years old, are amongst the oldest life forms on Earth and the first structures to produce oxygen. Algae has long fascinated naturalists and artists including zoologist, naturalist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who documented his discoveries of sea life forms with exceptional precision in Art Forms of Nature (1899-1904). Algae also features in the work of botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) who documented many variations of aquatic plant-life in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), the first photography book ever made.
‘The Air We Share’ will explore air as a common space, one that can make us vulnerable to infection and exposes us to pollutants, and where clean air is distributed unequally. Fumifugium written in 1661 by diarist, John Evelyn (1620-1706) was one of the first treatises on air pollution. Looking at the effects of dirty air on people’s health, Evelyn proposed forward-thinking solutions such as moving polluting industries out of the city and improving air quality by planting flowers and trees.
Death by Pollution (9:34 mins, 2021) by Black and Brown Films looks at the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in London in 2013 from an asthma attack brought on by polluted air. She is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed on her death certificate as a cause of death, and the film highlights the fact that communities of colour are more likely to live in areas affected by contaminated air.
Air Morphologies, Matterlurgy & artsXR, 2022
Matterlurgy are a collaborative duo working with scientists and technologists to investigate the toxicity of air and its human impact on the environment. Their new video installation, Air Morphologies (2022), addresses the materiality and composition of air pollution particles, their causes, effects and agency, and how geopolitics is located in atmospheric thinking and being. For the production of the film, Matterlurgy collaborated with immersive production studio artsXR to explore the toxicity of air.
In 2010 Dryden Goodwin created Breathe, a video animation of his asthmatic son struggling to breathe, which was positioned on the wall of St Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament. 12 years after Breathe was made, Goodwin has revisited the subject, drawing six Lewisham residents each of whom are intimately connected to the fight for clean air including Rosamund, the mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who continues to campaign for access to clean air for everyone. A related display will highlight a signage campaign (2021) by Choked Up, a group of Black and Brown teenagers living in areas affected by toxic levels of air pollution.
The final part of the exhibition, ‘The Air Above Us’, will explore the space of global politics and international surveillance, reflecting on how the sky has been mapped and controlled. It will include archive documents from the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), a 1960’s group of prominent scientists who advocated for the ethical implementation of scientific advances, on issues including the use of technology to weaponise air.
Research institute Forensic Architecture investigate and expose how power reshapes the very air we breathe. Cloud Studies (2021) presents a series of individual films investigating state and corporate weaponisation of air. The films reveal the movement of toxic air across borders, satellite images capturing carbon monoxide emitted from the burning of Indonesian forests to clear land for crops, and an analysis of methane released from fracking in Argentina, part of a collaborative investigation into the fossil fuel industry with The Guardian newspaper.
David Rickard’s International Airspace (2019) will conclude In the Air with a large glass vessel containing air from the 27 countries who signed the Paris Convention in 1919, accompanied by photographs of each site where the air was captured. Produced with collaborators from each country, the work emphasises the internationalism of the air we breathe.
In the Air will be presented in Gallery 2 at Wellcome Collection from 19 May to 16 October 2022. It is co-curated by George Vasey and Emily Sargent.
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