From a 1661 pamphlet imploring action on smog to works by Tacita Dean and Dryden Goodwin, In the Air gives artistic form to the stuff we draw into our lungs
Despite ultra-low emissions regulations, there are still plenty of diesel vans choking up London’s Euston Road, historically one of the most polluted thoroughfares in the country. It is an apt location for an awareness-raising exhibition in the Wellcome Collection, not exactly a breath of fresh air but a bracing, uplifting and potentially reinvigorating exploration of the surprisingly long history of fighting for breath.
In the Air mixes works from contemporary artists including Tacita Dean, Dryden Goodwin and David Rickard, and fascinating archival material revealing earlier battles for clean air which began with Fumifugium, or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London, a magnificently prescient 1661 pamphlet by John Evelyn which is one of the earliest known writings imploring the authorities to take action against pollution.
Air may be the most elusive and challenging of elements to be given artistic form but it is having a moment. Goodwin drew attention to London’s toxic air when sketches of his five-year-old son breathing were projected on to St Thomas’ hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament in 2012. Ten years on, he’s returned to the subject, drawing anti-pollution activists from his home London neighbourhood of Lewisham including Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013, becoming the first person in Britain to have air pollution listed as a cause of her death at her inquest.
Six local people – including Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, Anjali Raman-Middleton of clean-air campaigners Choked Up, and Goodwin’s own son, Heath – are filmed taking breath before Goodwin sketches each of the multiple frames in miniature form with a 0.5mm propelling pencil. The vivid, tiny sketches show each activist drawn from the waist up, wearing as little as possible so you see their skin taut over their rib-cage, which somehow conveys the vulnerability of breathing, and the defiance of activism.
Goodwin is still drawing for Breathe:2022 which will also feature on advertising hoardings, bus stops and council buildings across Lewisham, culminating in a large public projection of the completed animation of more than 1,000 drawings in November, a collaboration with the arts and science charity Invisible Dust. The project sprang from a deeply personal fear for his five-year-old son. “Drawing my son was about my sense of responsibility for him,” he says. “We’ve chosen for our children to be in this environment.” But he is acutely aware that while he may have chosen to live in Lewisham, others didn’t. “We don’t all breathe the same air. I don’t live that far away from where Ella was so devastatingly affected. I live a few roads back but the difference is huge.” The words of Adoo-Kissi-Debrah will go beneath one of the images: “Do we all breathe the same air?”
For thousands of years into the future people are going to breathe the pollution we are creating now
After the “provocation” of the projection opposite parliament, Goodwin was invited to attend a panel discussion on air pollution hosted by the Environmental Audit Committee. “So I went and it was amazing and I thought, there’s something happening here. Then Joan Walley, an MP who was doing good work on the issue, said ‘you must write to your MP and express these things’ and I thought, but we’re here in the Commons! We’ve got to get on with this stuff!”
The government is currently proposing air-quality targets that allow twice as much small-particle pollution in England as the World Health Organization recommends as an upper limit, and this target will not be met until 2040. Is Goodwin dismayed by the lack of progress in the last decade? “It’s so troubling, in fact terrifying, what’s happened in that time. We knew that this was the path we were on,” he says. One of the biggest positive changes, he thinks, sprang from the Ella’s tragic death in his borough which has motivated a new generation of young activists. “The vastness of the scale of air pollution is overwhelming but it’s through the local that the vast scale of the global can be incrementally dealt with. It’s really important that the people I drew this time were active and agents for change.”
Visitors to the Wellcome show are greeted by a projection of Tacita Dean’s delightful, vertiginous short film about collecting air in a hot air balloon, and a pile of concrete blocks assembled by David Rickard. A Roomful of Air measures the volume of air in the gallery, calculating the altitude, humidity and temperature – which all affect its weight – and represents this astonishing weight – more than 1,400kg in this particular room – in concrete.
“The pressure on our bodies is literally tonnes,” says Rickard, a likable New Zealander based in London who fizzes with ideas for ingenuous collaborations with scientists. “In the sea, there are fish that live in the midnight zone; we live in the midnight zone of the atmosphere – it’s got a huge amount of pressure.”
Rickard, like Goodwin, has been making art out of air for more than a decade, ever since Exhaust, in which he sat in a valved mask for 24 hours and collected all the air he breathed in aluminium foil balloons. This eerily beautiful and exhausting performance art typically results in a sculpture of 98 to 102 balloons of Rickard’s breath rising above his meditative figure.
Rickard won’t have to complete this marathon for In the Air but is instead showing International Airspace, which turns Dean’s filmic idea of collecting air into reality, with air collected from the 27 original signatories of the 1919 Paris Convention.
“We talk about ‘our’ airspace in a national sense – clearly that’s a completely irrelevant way of thinking of it in terms of the atmosphere and the environment,” says Rickard, who was inspired by Caesar’s Last Breath, a book by Sam Kean, which reveals how the air we breathe today circulates around the hemisphere every two weeks, and with every breath we take we inhale one molecule that will have been breathed by Caesar in his final breath. “That’s when we start to realise that this notion of pollution and our changing of the atmosphere is not going to go away,” says Rickard, “and for thousands of years into the future people are going to breathe the pollution we are creating now.”
Rickard found collaborators in each 0f the 27 countries, from Belgium to Uruguay, who collected air in special plastic bags and posted boxes of it to him. “It’s pretty inspiring how people will come on board with something as strange as ‘could you collect some air?’” Eventually, air obtained, Rickard released it into elegant glass tubes created by scientific glass-blowers (a dying art – or science – says Rickard) at Leicester University’s school of chemistry.
Rickard’s work may not be overtly polemical but he is keen to heighten our awareness of the air that we breathe by showing the materiality of the air, an aim shared by Matterlurgy, the duo of Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright, who present a new video installation, Air Morphologies, a collaboration with production studio artsXR.
In an immersive, panoramic film developed for the exhibition from a VR headset, visitors encounter gigantic pollution particles – which talk to them about this “toxic ecology”.
“An understanding that the air is economic and geopolitical, and shaped by industry and pollution is growing within popular culture,” says Hunter. “For us it was very much about the animation itself and how the voice of the particles address the viewer – this transformation of scientific knowledge into something that is felt, or physical, or more poetic.”
While Goodwin’s breathing people are tiny and fragile, a fly ash particle is enlarged to become bigger than a person. “Fly ash particles are produced by coal-fired power plants, and fly ash is the star of the show,” says Wright. “It will address you as the gallery visitor. We really wanted to create an encounter that is slow, that somehow moves and contemplates these toxic realities that underpin life but that we’re rarely aware of. We didn’t want it to be polemical but it’s a very serious topic with lots of gradations of culpability and effect, in terms of who has the right to breathe.”
“We wanted to create contemplative space where you can really feel this toxic intimacy and think critically about it,” says Hunter. “The soundtrack creates a sense of mourning and meditation – not in a tuning out way but in a very focused way.”
Goodwin hopes that the exhibition’s air art not only focuses minds but also contributes to political action. He believes that the local activists highlighted in Breathe:2022 are being heard by councils and the mayor of London’s office but hopes for change at a higher level. “Rosamund said it’s very important that these [artistic] things happen and there’s a raising of awareness and the invisible is made visible but action has to happen too. There need to be more cycle lanes and limits to pollution must be adhered to. Politicians can’t just think ‘we’ve shown some pictures’. I’m very conscious of art-washing but we have to bloody well do something, and this is what I do.”