In the Air: Art and Science Come Together to Deliver Revelations and Powerful Messages

“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
Tacita Dean, A Bag of Air (still), 1995, film. Image courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London; and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris.
Dryden Goodwin, Breathe, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Invisible Dust.
Matterlurgy, Air Morphologies, 2020, developed in collaboration with ArtsXR. Image courtesy of the artists.
Air Morphologies, Matterlurgy & arts XR, 2022; installation view in “In the Air”, Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2021, fluid dynamic simulation of tear gas in the air of Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, Chile, on 20 December 2019. © and image courtesy of the artists.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2021, still image from The Bombing of Rafah, 2015. © and image courtesy of the artists.
David Rickard, International Airspace, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Copperfield London.
“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
The Peps Co., Peril in the Air, 1913. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection.
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An exploration of air at London’s Wellcome Collection threads contemporary art into a conversation that should make us think again about the invisible gaseous substance we all breathe and share.

 TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
Tacita Dean, A Bag of Air (still), 1995, film. Image courtesy the artist; Frith Street Gallery, London; and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris.

 

Exhibitions at London’s Wellcome Collection have an unusual formula: Art + Science + History + Politics = Challenge + Learn + Enjoy. You’re almost certain to come away thinking differently, usually about something that touches on our wellbeing. In the case of “In the Air”, it’s the air we all breathe.

To set the scene, the first thing you encounter is A Roomful of Air (2021), a neatly-piled up mass of 105.2 concrete blocks (the 0.2 is a sliced block) by London-based artist David Rickard. This as a variation on Carl André’s controversial Equivalent (1966) series of firebricks laid rectangularly on the floor, which once prompted much agonising about what is art. Rickard’s point lies in Andre’s title. His blocks weigh 1,423kg, equivalent to the mass of air in the gallery space. Who would think air is that heavy? The work next to it is about magic, not science. British artist Tacita Dean’s film A Bag of Air (1995) was shot from a hot air balloon over the French countryside. The black-and-white footage looks ancient, but her narration is enchanting. The balloon’s mission is to collect air “so intoxicated with the essence of spring that when it is distilled…it will produce an oil of gold, remedy enough to heal all ailments.”

After this introduction, the exhibition is zoned. The first section is Air Below Us”, surveying the record of air in the ground, stretching all the back to some polished and cut geological samples of stromatolites, which are made by the cyanobacteria that have been making oxygen for 3.5 billion years. Air bubbles in glaciers are a record of ancient air, and we see two models made in 2017 of Switzerland’s Gorner Glacier by Amsterdam-based Argentinian artist Irene Kopelman, known for her unique scientific approach to landscape. She has flattened the glacier shapes so they become like maps marked only by the lines of their crevices. The effect is simultaneously minimalist and chaotic.

 

Dryden Goodwin, Breathe, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Invisible Dust.
Matterlurgy, Air Morphologies, 2020, developed in collaboration with ArtsXR. Image courtesy of the artists.
Air Morphologies, Matterlurgy & arts XR, 2022; installation view in “In the Air”, Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.

 

In the next section, “The Air We Share”, British creatives address pollution, focusing on London but raising universal issues. We see an original copy of the book Fumifugium by John Evelyn which warned of the dangers in urban smoke as far back as 1661. The video Death by Pollution (2021) by Black and Brown Films tells the tragic case of the first Londoner whose cause of death was officially pollution, a bubbly nine-year-old named Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. Teenage campaigners Choked Up have highlighted how people of colour are more likely to live in areas where pollution exceeds legal limits, and we see signage which they deployed in the city. It delivers the message by stealth by appearing in standard street sign format. Another work planned for London streets is Breathe (2022) by Dryden Goodwin, a master of detailed studies of individuals. Breathe is a series of stark, haunting sequential drawings of six people in the act of simply breathing. They will be blown up for the street campaign, but seeing the originals close-up in the exhibition allows us to see their intricate detail, and the humanity of the subjects is no less for their small scale.

Just as powerful but completely different is the imagery of the hypnotic film Air Morphologies (2020) by artist duo Matterlurgy, which reveals the toxic particulates that float in the air. Originally made for virtual reality, no headset is now needed as you simply step into an almost 360-degree circular screen installation. Big black circles and gritty blobs rendered with laser-sharp precision float serenely accompanied by an ambient soundtrack.

 

“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2021, fluid dynamic simulation of tear gas in the air of Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, Chile, on 20 December 2019. © and image courtesy of the artists.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2021, still image from The Bombing of Rafah, 2015. © and image courtesy of the artists.
David Rickard, International Airspace, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Copperfield London.

 

The exhibition’s final section, “The Air Above Us”, goes global. We see publications from 1973 to 1982 by the influential British Society for Social Responsibility in Science who issued rallying calls on technological issues including airborne threats such as asbestos and tear gas along with the possible threats posed by chemical, biological and nuclear warfares. Their cover artwork graphic is now vintage but still speaks clearly. Meanwhile, a whole room is filled with London-based investigative agency Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies (2020) (previously reviewed when it was shown at last year’s Manchester International Festival). Their central film, projected on a large, wide screen, brilliantly documents the various exploding or drifting clouds we make that attack people and nature, from tear gas to rainforest burning. Additional studies appear on the back wall. Using footage, three-dimensional modelling and testimonies from the victims, this is about airborne violence, and it asserts “the universal right to breathe.”

In contrast the show ends on a fairly calm, optimistic note. Another work by Rickard, International Airspace (2019) presents a grid of sky photos and a glass vessel of air suspended beside them. That air is a mix from 27 countries, corresponding to the photos, almost like an update on Dean’s quest to bottle air in the earlier film. National territory extends upwards into the atmosphere, but Rickard reminds us that air transcends boundaries and belongs to all.

“In the Air” manages to create remarkable bridges, not just between art and science and the past and present, but also between the local and the global, and the fragility of humans against the permanence of rocks. With featured practices like Matterlurgy and Forensic Architecture we see how digital technology is driving an emerging territory where art and scientific research meet, and the role of the artist and researcher blurs. That can create problems. Forensic Architecture’s work has been dismissed by powerful forces before, on the basis that it is art, so it is fanciful. 

But engaging with issues of social justice and environment have long been present in art itself, and it’s good to see how even the most traditional, perfectionist skills such as Goodwin’s drawings have lost none of their power. “In the Air” brings revelations and wake-up calls, but by weaving art through them, they take on ever greater relevance. Art mediates a conversation about air we need to have.

 

“In the Air”, installation view at Wellcome Collection, London, 19 May – 16 October 2022. Photo by Steven Pocock. Image courtesy of the artists and Wellcome Collection.
The Peps Co., Peril in the Air, 1913. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

 

In the Air
19 May – 16 October 2022
Gallery 2, Wellcome Collection, London

 

 

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