There’s a monumentally scaled, pensive-looking woman lying on the floor of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. She’s in bed (under the doona) and doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Can anyone blame her? She’s surrounded by anxiety and disaster.
This is artist Ron Mueck’s hyperrealistic sculpture, In Bed (2005).
To her left is Jemima Wyman’s exquisite collage Plume 20 (2022), a column of smoke made from hundreds of images of flares, flames and tear-gassed protests, which unfurls across the wall in bruised shades of red and purple.
To the right of her is the nuclear-bomb blast of Yhonnie Scarce’s delicate and devastating glass-blown installation Cloud Chamber (2020), and Thu Van Tran’s graphite-and-spray-paint testimonies to the chemical weapons used by the United States during the Vietnam War, Rainbow Herbicides (2018).
Staring back at her are Rachel Mounsey’s amber-hued photographs of her regional Victorian hometown during the catastrophic 2019-2020 bushfires, Mallacoota Fires in the Sky (2020).
Is it any wonder Mueck’s woman looks exhausted? She could be any of us as we contemplate the many ways air has been polluted, weaponised, and impacted by disasters, both man-made and natural, in recent years.
And we haven’t even got to talking about airborne viruses yet.
This is Air, which opened at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) last week. It’s a conceptual companion of sorts to 2019’s Water.
Organised in five thematic chapters — Atmosphere, Shared, Burn, Invisible and Change — Air includes works that engage with ideas of breath, the anthropocene, industrialisation, social justice and the environment.
QAGOMA director Chris Saines described both Air and Water as examples of a new model of blockbuster in a panel discussion on opening weekend: “These are exhibitions that engage with real-world issues and ideas — ideas that are esoteric, until they’re not.”
Both Water and Air were curated by Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow.
“When we were developing Water, the political landscape was quite different, particularly having a federal government which had really weaponised the climate conversation,” she says.
“Water was structured to try and bring us together, but also to spark questions around creating energy and change. There’s definitely some shared themes and interests with Air.”
While drought was the undercurrent of Water, it was the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic that really animated and accelerated Barlow’s thinking about Air.
“The pandemic suddenly made real the fact that we share this invisible resource; that there are these particles between us, and what are they carrying? When are we safe and when are we not safe?” says Barlow.
Studying this invisible matter, and the impact of its quality on human health and the environment, has been the life’s work of world-leading physicist and Queensland University of Technology Distinguished Professor Lidia Morawska.
Barlow met Morawska by chance when she first started planning Air. Their discussions, and Morawska’s scientific expertise, informed and inspired much of Barlow’s approach to the exhibition — especially about the urgency of these conversations.
During an opening weekend panel talk, Morawska observed that 10 years ago, an exhibition about air would be unthinkable. But with escalating climate emergencies and stratospherically fatal levels of air pollution being recorded around the world — as well as the recent bushfires and global pandemic — urgent conversations about the precarity and inequality of our air have come to the fore.
For Barlow, part of the challenge of curating a show that is both inherently political and also deeply grounded in science was avoiding being heavy-handed or didactic.
“One of the great things that artists can do is to shift the context of what scientists do to show meaning and impact in other ways,” she says.
For Barlow, the power of contemporary art is in the way it can use abstraction and a poetic sensibility to communicate ideas that are both urgent and uplifting. But, she says, “It can also fuel thinking while leaving space for imaginative leaps.”
Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno’s suspended installation of 15 large-scale mirrored, transparent and silver spheres, Drift: A Cosmic Web of Thermodynamic Rhythms (2022), fills GOMA’s atrium, and is one of the most imaginative and optimistic leaps on display here.
“The installation expands on test flights launched by the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales [National Centre for Space Studies], Paris, where I was artist-in-residence in 2012,” explains Saraceno.
“The spheres are models of larger sculptures that could travel around the globe lifted only with the heat of the sun.
“[The installation] invites participants to ponder the question: What if we could drift with the rivers of the wind, with the breath of a more equal atmosphere, entangled in a more just sociopolitical geography of the air?”
In 2015, Saraceno founded the Aerocene community, an experimental and open global community who collaborate to “promote and enact environmental awareness” through the development, testing and launching of “aerosolar sculptures”.
The aim of the community, which now spans 126 cities, 43 countries and six continents, is to free the earth from fossil fuels and make air quality more equitable.
“Albert Santos-Dumont, one of the pioneers of ballooning, coined a phrase that I find very beautiful: ‘stillness in motion,'” says Saraceno.
“Might we one day float around the world, collectively re-imagining the air we breathe? These are the kinds of questions that we pose and investigate with the Aerocene community.”
Tucked away at the end of GOMA’s atrium is Saraceno’s Aerocene Backpack (2016-ongoing). This “portable flight-starter kit” has been designed so that anyone can launch their own floating sculpture, drawing on Saraceno and the Aerocene community’s philosophy of ‘”Do-It-Together”.
“[The backpack] is a sculpture that’s always evolving through an ongoing, collective and open process of construction,” explains Saraceno.
“It’s a poetic tool for imagining a new era without fossil fuels and new ways of decarbonising the atmosphere.”
Saraceno stresses that people need to remain optimistic in the face of social and environmental crises.
But, he cautions, “We must stay watchful of the form that the [energy] transition is taking so that it doesn’t end up reproducing the same neo-colonial, extractivist relations we have seen for 500 years.”
Grappling with environmental destruction
Kokatha and Nukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce’s work refers to those exact violent, colonial histories.
Cloud Chamber is one of a series of six installations of yams made from hand-blown glass, which re-create the radiation clouds from British nuclear testing in Maralinga, South Australia, between 1953 and 1963.
“During the nuclear blasts, the air was poisoned, polluted, and it created long-term health effects. Not just in the lungs — it was eyes, it was everything. Country is still poisoned,” says Scarce.
Cloud Chamber is installed in the exhibition’s Invisible chapter, which feels fitting to Scarce.
“Aboriginal people were seen as invisible during that time, or invisible in general because we weren’t even considered citizens of Australia until the referendum [in 1967]. And there’s still invisibility now, in terms of Aboriginal issues related to colonisation. So I think for Cloud Chamber to be here is a really great opportunity for people to engage more closely on that term.”
But there are other thematic resonances for Scarce too.
“Air itself is really important in terms of the cloud works, because there’s 1,000 pieces in Cloud Chamber, which is 1,000 breaths,” she says.
“I often talk about my breath being used to create these objects and when you think about the thousands of Aboriginal people that might have died, who lost their breath, for me, it’s like giving life [back]. They hold my breath, technically, but it’s a kind of collective breath.”
Collective breath and collective action is a recurring theme throughout Air.
Barlow was also inspired early in her thinking about the exhibition by Jonathan Jones’s collaboration with Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr, Untitled (giran) (2018). It’s presented here in the final exhibition chapter, Change.
“I hope that within the chapters of the exhibition there is a consciousness of the critical challenges we face, and a sense of urgency, but also an energising of the need to change and the possible pathways to get there,” Barlow said in a panel discussion on opening weekend.
Giran means wind in Wiradjuri language, and Jones’s collaborative work, acquired by the gallery as part of QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial in 2018, melds language, philosophy, community engagement, and First Nations cultural practice.
The result is a work made up of nearly 2,000 individual winged sculptures — tools tied with feathers and installed to appear like a flock of birds in flight. It is accompanied by a soundtrack of birdsong, breathing, wind and Wiradjuri words.
These tools “embody the knowledge passed down through generations and represent the potential for change,” Barlow noted in the exhibition catalogue.
Jones added: “Wind brings change, knowledge and new ideas to those prepared to listen.”
Air at GOMA could be said to do the same.
Air runs until April 23 at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
The writer travelled to the exhibition as a guest of Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art.
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