Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published January 31, 2023
Tomás Saraceno, Installation view of 'Drift: A cosmic web of thermodynamic rhythms' (2022)

Some people say not to worry about the air

Some people never had experience with… air

                                                      Talking Heads


Science tells us the average human being takes in 360 litres of air per hour. That sounds like a lot, but we do it without even noticing. It’s only when we have trouble breathing or become conscious of unpleasant odours, excessive humidity, or pollution, that air becomes a problem.

Ron Mueck, ‘In bed’ (2005)

It seems Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art could hardly have chosen a more universal theme for its summer exhibition. Air features work by 30 Australian and international artists and follows on from a show called Water held in 2019-20. Earth and Fire can’t be far behind. It is a way of making the most of the gallery’s permanent collection at a time when international exhibitions are almost unaffordable. Some of the works on display are new acquisitions, many have been seen before but warrant another look.

As with many thematic shows, it occasionally feels as if the curator, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, had particular items she wanted to include, and found a way of squeezing them in. It’s easy to see what a group of massive floating spheres by Tomas Saraceno have to do with air, but Ron Mueck’s oversized sculpture of a woman in bed? A watercolour landscape by Albert Namatjira? A drawing of a tree by Lloyd Rees? These are perfectly good works, but the “air” connection is a little tenuous. Coming out of the pandemic, Mueck’s In Bed (2005) inevitably suggests someone getting through a dose of COVID-19, after inhaling airborne particles. Landscapes may be painted en plein air, but it seems somewhat arbitrary to single out one or two.

Rosslynd Piggott, ‘Collection of air – 27.12.1992 – 28.2.1993’

Even more numerous are the works that might have gone into an imaginary version of this show. It would, for instance, have been a perfect opportunity to show one of Panamarenko’s flying machines, or maybe Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of a glider or a helicopter. Or Guy Warren’s Icarus drawn by a skywriter. The hypotheticals are endless, the practical choices severely limited.

An exhibition about air is like holding an exhibition about nothing – which was Marcel Duchamp’s mischievous point when he gave his friend Walter Arenberg, a work titled 50 cc of Paris Air (1919). It was one of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ – a glass ampoule purchased from a Parisian pharmacy, with the air inside the ampoule nominated as art. Yet even this was thrown into question when the piece was broken and repaired in 1949. Strictly speaking, it’s now an ampoule of American air, and the title of the work is a lie.

Carlos Amorales, Installation view of ‘Black Cloud’ (2007/2018)

Duchamp’s ampoule isn’t in this exhibition, but it was most certainly in Rosslynd Piggott’s mind when she made Collection of air 2.12.1992 – 28.2.1993 (1992-93), while travelling through Italy and France. Sixty-five carefully labelled vials of air act as souvenirs of moments experienced on the trip, as Piggott visited friends or stood near artworks she admired. Each bottle represents a memory, preserved like a specimen in a laboratory.

When we talk about the “air” of a particular place we are often describing a feeling rather than a fact. The “air” of cities such as Paris or New York is frequently described as heady, exciting, charged with possibilities. There’s an implicit danger in imbibing this air, as if a naïve young visitor from the country might become intoxicated or corrupted by breathing in such an electrifying atmosphere. Inhale deeply, then take a walk on the wild side.

Mona Hatoum, ‘Hot Spot’ (2006)

The other extreme is the idea of air as a purifying element. When tuberculosis was a more common disease, sufferers in Europe and England were encouraged to visit clinics and resorts in the Alps, where they might “take the air”. In Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain (1924), a group of patients in an Alpine clinic are isolated from a continent growing progressively more extreme, decadent and unstable. The preoccupations of the age are acted out in microcosm by the invalids, with the purity of the air making little impression on the tangle of beliefs and desires each person harbours.

Brisbane, with its hot, humid climate would be one of the last places a doctor would send a TB patient for a cure. In tropical climes nowadays we rely on air-conditioning to transform a debilitating atmosphere into a benign one. There is a cost, however, for the planet in the form of the massive amount of electricity required to run an air-conditioned city, and for the culture in the way every environment becomes the same. The different ways people have managed to stay cool in India, South-East Asia, Africa, or Australia, are reduced to a simple process of closing the windows and flipping a switch.

Rachel Mounsey, ‘New Year’s Eve 2019: People seek shelter under heavy smoke at the Mallacoota Gymnasium relief centre’

Such thoughts spring to mind when confronted with Nancy Holt’s Ventilation System (1985-92), which consists of a set of massive pipes that mimics the industrial-scale air conditioning apparatus found in public buildings. Holt believed that turning these pipes into an artwork was akin to exposing the thoughts of the subconscious mind, but with such a minimal, systems-based piece, there can be no definitive interpretation.

If there is one contemporary obsession that dominates our responses to the works in Air, it is the global climate crisis that may already be beyond our control. This is the overt theme of many of the pieces in the show, notably Rachel Mounsey’s dramatic photos of Mallacoota engulfed in the fierce red glow of the 2019 bushfres, but there are other works that invite entirely new readings. When Mona Hatoum made Hot spot in 2006, she was using a schematic globe of the world with land masses outlined in thin red lights, to draw attention to the prevalence of political violence. The curator, with the artist’s permission, would now like us to see the work as a comment on a warming planet.

Jonathan Jones & Dr Uncle Stan Grant, ‘untitled (giran)’ 2018

Black-and-white images of mining and industry by photographers such as Charles Page and Wolfgang Sievers, no longer seem like celebrations of human ingenuity and resilience, but statements of hubris, suggesting we should not be so quick to take pride in our achievements without considering the long-term consequences. By contrast, Indigenous knowledge and spirituality – as exemplified by Jonathan Jones’s sweeping installation, untitled (giran) (2018) – are only ever seen as being in harmony with nature.

If there’s one wellknown idiom that no longer applies it’s being “as free as the air”. As a symbol of ideal freedom, air has become problematic. When disaster rains from the skies in the form of cyclones, storms, airborne flames and smoke, we are more likely to feel trapped or oppressed by the air rather than set free. Even the word “freedom” has been rendered suspect by those who see “freedom of speech” as the divine right to spread lies, hate speech and conspiracy theories. As the works in this exhibition seem to insist, our relationship with air today, hot or otherwise, is akin to that of Icarus, who flew too high and came crashing down to earth. From a dream of perfect freedom we’ve fashioned a perfect storm.



Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane,

26 November, 2022 – 23 April, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January, 2023