From an artistic perspective, air is one of the most difficult subjects to depict visually. But the 2022 London exhibition titled “In the Air” challenges artists to do just that by highlighting the subject of air pollution. The show mixes the works of contemporary artists including Dryden Goodwin, Tacita Dean, and David Rickard with archival material featuring early activism for clean air dating back to a 1661 pamphlet by John Evelyn that features one of the earliest known writings condemning pollution.
Artists Goodwin and Rickard have long been working with air as the subject of their work. In 2012, Goodwin projected sketches of his five-year-old son breathing on St. Thomas’ hospital, which sits opposite the Houses of Parliament, in an effort to draw attention to London’s toxic air quality. And in 2011, Rickard created a performance art piece in which he sat in a valved mask for 24 hours, collecting all the air he breathed during that period into aluminum foil balloons.
The “In the Air” exhibition will be showing in the Welcome Collection until October 16th, 2022. Goodwin’s contribution to the exhibition involves a series of sketches of anti-pollution activists from his home London neighborhood of Lewisham. This includes a drawing of Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose nine-year-old daughter Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 and became the first person in Britain who had “air pollution” listed as her cause of death.
He first films his subjects and then sketches the multiple frames with a 0.5mm propelling pencil, each sketch showing the subjects from only the waist up so you can see the skin taut over their rib cages. This is meant to convey the fragile vulnerability of breath. “Breathe:2022” by Goodwin will be featured on advertisements, bus stops, and council buildings across Lewisham, culminating in an animation of more than 1,000 drawings in November.
When initially entering the exhibition, patrons are greeted with Tacita Dean’s short film about collecting air in a hot air balloon and a pile of concrete rocks by David Rickard. This exhibit titled “A Roomful of Air” measures the volume and weight of the air within the gallery (humidity, altitude, temperature, etc.) and depicts the weight visually using the concrete. Another exhibit by Rickard attempts to highlight “International Airspace” by working with collaborators across the world to collect air from 27 countries into special bags and display it in glass tubes created by scientific glassblowers.
These are just a few of the many exhibits in this show, which ultimately aim to draw attention to pollution and clean air efforts. In regard to the impact of the exhibition, Goodwin stated, “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 on 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.”