When Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art opened its Water exhibition in the summer of 2019, the state was consumed by drought, and ablaze in the worst bushfires in modern Australian history.
How would people receive what was planned to be a blockbuster exhibition, fretted the museum’s international curator, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, when it was supposed to celebrate what the country lacked most?
But as more than 6m hectares of Queensland was being consumed by inferno and the politics of global heating reached melting point in Canberra, more than 120,000 local, interstate and overseas visitors flocked to Water.
The exhibition was critically praised and the Guardian proclaimed it “a profound space to process climate anxiety”.
And as Water opened, Barlow had already begun the curatorial process for its sequel. And what could possibly be political/divisive/controversial about air, the invisible substance that sustains life on Earth?
“I was thinking, at least with the next one it won’t be so politicised,” Barlow told the Guardian.
On 25 January 2020 the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Australia. It was to take another 12 months before the World Health Organization accepted the evidence presented by 239 scientists, led by an Australian-based physicist, Lidia Morawska, that the virus was airborne. Suddenly, the entire world was talking about air.
As Goma’s director, Chris Saines, observed in his speech marking the opening of Air on the weekend: “These kinds of thematically driven exhibitions can seem quite abstract and esoteric. Until, of course, they’re not.”
Morawska was something of a guest of honour at the exhibition’s opening. The 70-year-old Polish-born scientist was bemused when Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people, placing her in the same league as Elon Musk, Donald Trump and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But she appeared to be delightedly surprised that the subject of her life’s research has now become the fodder of creative endeavour.
“I never expected it to be art … but this is actually incredibly powerful,” she said on a panel at Air’s opening this week. She was specifically referring to Tomás Saraceno’s aerosolar sculpture Drift: A cosmic web of thermodynamic rhythms 2022.
The giant installation of silver spheres commands the museum’s central hall, seeming – impossibly – both reflective and semi-transparent. On the surrounding walls hangs a series of framed strips of paper tape, produced by air pollution monitoring machines titled We do not all breathe the same air, reflecting the Argentinian artist’s preoccupation with the politics of air. At a singularly local level, the work proves the residents of inner-city Melbourne are not breathing the same air as those residing in the leafy suburb of Box Hill, 14km east of the CBD.
Although we all inhabit the same planet, we do not all breathe the same air. This is the underlying premise of Air. How does humankind’s most vital resource intersect with human rights and social justice? What are the politics of air? And why does it all seem to intersect back to the pressing issue of climate change?
The fragile beauty of Yhonnie Scarce’s Cloud Chamber – hundreds of hand-blown glass pendants resembling bush yams or inverted raindrops suspended from the ceiling – belies the ugly symbolism; each delicate glass ornament contains a pocket of air the First Nations artist collected from the lands of her ancestors, contaminated by radioactive material that rained upon Emu Field and Maralinga after British nuclear testing in the 1950s.
On an opposing wall hangs Thu Van Tran’s Rainbow Herbicides – angry grey plumes of volcanic ash pierced with smears of brilliant orange, blue, pink, purple, green and white; a damning depiction of the deadly dioxins the US showered over the artist’s homeland during the Vietnam war in the 1970s, condemning future generations to illness, birth defects and early deaths.
Rachel Mounsey’s photographic series Mallacoota Fires in the Sky returns the viewer to the aforementioned black summer of 2019, capturing holidaymakers cloaked in a rust-red landscape. The township where the artist lives has still not recovered and rebuilt two years after raging bushfires destroyed more than 100 homes.
There is apprehension too in the hyperreal oversized sculpture In Bed. A permanent Goma acquisition, the Ron Mueck work was reinstalled for Air because, says Barlow, Covid-19 gave it new meaning. There is something about the intensity of worry in the woman’s eyes as she hunches under her doona.
“We all became anxious about something that was invisible and in the air during Covid – and many of us did take to our beds.”
Yet snippets of hope, joy and celebration are also to be found here.
A human figure dwarfed by a magnificent Moreton Bay fig in a Lloyd Rees sketch from the early 20th century; Albert Namatjira’s beloved ghost gums in a 1950s watercolour; Jamie North’s living sculpture, twin columns partially eroded and colonised by living ferns and vines. These works pay homage to the resilience of nature and the central role plants and trees play as our planet’s vital lungs.
And there is spectacle too. The daunting scale of Mueck’s In Bed is matched by Nancy Holt’s Ventilation System, which fills a room with industrial-scale pipes, funnels and filters.
The Mexican artist Carlos Amorales colonises the walls and ceilings with thousands of three-dimensional black butterflies and moths in his installation Black Cloud, and the Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones dominates a wall with his untitled work consisting of several thousand small tools, crafted from wood, stone, handmade string and feathers, and mounted to resemble a giant murmuration of migrating birds.
“It’s one of the great things artists can do, take something from science and creatively shift the context and show us an inherent meaning in another way,” says the show’s curator.
“I hope people see Air as a call for action, without being didactic. I think there’s something about abstraction and a sense of uplift that leaves space for imaginative leaps.”
Air is open at Goma in Brisbane until April 2023