Take a deep breath with this new Utah art exhibit

‘Air’ at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts wants to pull your head out of the clouds.

When Whitney Tassie moved to Salt Lake City 10 years ago, she became acutely aware of air pollution's impact on life in the Mountain West. “I had never experienced that sort of, like, daily routine of checking the air levels, or wondering if my kids were going to be able to play outside at recess or not,” says Tassie, who came to Salt Lake to be curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The experience made her think about how she might process it through a special exhibition.


On July 16, visitors to UMFA will ponder their own relationship to the elemental in the resulting exhibition, “Air,” which explores different facets of air from environmental, social justice and cultural perspectives. On view through Dec. 11, Tassie features work by 16 artists, poets, engineers and designers from around the world. Many names are familiar — Ai Weiwei, for example — but all are artists who are able see air both as material muse and as inspiration for discourse about Earth’s most pressing challenges. 

Take, for instance, Rotterdam-based Studio Roosegaarde, a “social design” lab founded by Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde. Working with a team of designers and engineers, Roosegaarde created The SMOG FREE TOWER, the world's first outdoor air purifier, which compresses smog particulates into jewelry. The resulting bling, now part of UMFA’s permanent collection, can be found in renowned institutions across the globe, including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, National Museum Zurich and The Biosphere Environment Museum in Montreal. 

Smog Free Ring, 2017, collected smog particles, transparent cube, stainless steel and other media.
Courtesy of Daan Roosegaarde and Studio Roosegaarde

“Clean air is the true beauty.”

For Roosegaarde, SMOG FREE’s accomplishment — turning pollution into useful products through inventive upcycling — is designed to highlight the seemingly limitless potential of sustainability. It’s summed up in his comment about the exhibit: “Clean air is the true beauty.”

Other jewelry — including a pair of unique hand-carved wood-and-beaded earrings — was created by Alaska Native (Tlingit and Unangax̂) and multimedia artist Nicholas Galanin. “They’re rape whistles, which are activated by forced breath,” says Tassie, adding that Galinin’s work makes use of Native decorative arts to comment on the silence surrounding the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Navajo Nation member and multimedia artist Anna Tsouhlarakis interprets air through her community’s experience of environmental racism. Her installation, Breath of Wind, is a three-minute, 16-second video highlighting the deadly effects of the 1979 Church Rock, New Mexico, uranium disaster. The largest radioactive spill in United States history, it poisoned the water, soil and air of the Navajo Nation, site of more than 700 of the uranium mines that produced the raw material that fueled the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. (Many mine workers reported that they never received protective gear or information about the health risks associated with breathing the deadly ore.)

“I started thinking about how that uranium is still part of the landscape now,” says Tsouhlarakis, an assistant professor of art and art history at the University of Colorado Boulder. The title of her video, she says, comes from Navajo stories about the “Big Wind,” and museum-goers will hear her grandmother tell stories in Navajo about what’s carried on its currents. Many women in her family have developed cancer over the years, something she attributes to the abandoned mines: “Decades later, every time the wind blows, it brings up those particles.”

Ai Weiwei’s ‘The Way Follows Nature,’ (2021).
Courtesy of The Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment Fund


Our fear of the unseeable in the form of the coronavirus is also acknowledged in the exhibit. Tassie says that when the pandemic hit, she looked around and realized how rapidly notions of air and breath were changing. This led her to procure a set of 10 limited-edition masks designed by legendary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The masks incorporate Taoist principles and represent flora and fauna, honoring Hawaiian culture and warning of the threat the islands face from climate change.

“We were all masking and afraid of air, afraid of sharing breath,” she says.

Phoenix-based artist Naomi Bebo offers a somewhat more macabre interpretation of masking in our day and age. Her Beaded Mask, an Iraqi gas mask embellished with seed beads, deer hide, ermine and ribbons, is described as a call for us to choose between “oil dependence, environmental degradation, and cultural genocide” or a breathable world for our children.

Left, Woodland Child in ‘Gas Mask’ (2015) mixed media, photo by Jason S. Ordaz. Right, Naomi Bebo wearing her ‘Beaded Mask’ (2015), seed beads, deer hide, ermine, and ribbons on gas mask, collection of the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth, Marguerite L. Gilmore Charitable Foundation Fund.
Courtesy of Naomi Bebo


And after the world watched Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd, an unarmed Black man pinned to the ground while repeatedly gasping, "I can’t breathe," Tassie knew that air and its intersection with state-sanctioned violence would have to be interrogated in the show, as it is in the video work of poet and multimedia artist Julianknxx. Born in Sierra Leone, the London-based artist’s three-minute, 40-second video Black Corporeal (Between This Air) is a visual love letter to Black bodies. It’s a soulful meditation on the psychic cost of being Black in a world that is built to seek your demise — to, quite literally, take your breath.

"I don’t think you can do a show about this thing, this essential life force that we share, without talking about who gets to breathe and who doesn’t,” Tassie says. Julianknxx’s somber video with its Afrofuturistic feel poses the question: “What does it mean to breathe in light of everything happening globally?”

A film still from Julianknxx’s ‘Black Corporeal (Between This Air)’ (2021).
Courtesy of the artist

“What does it mean to breathe in light of everything happening globally?”

This isn’t the first time art has been inspired by the air we breathe. New York’s Museum of Modern Art defines kinetic art as “art that moves or has an element of motion.” Artists like Jackson Pollack — whose abstract drip paintings evolved into “action painting,” a form of kinetic art in which the physical action of painting became essential to the final piece — were prominent in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s. In the late 1960s, artist and independent curator Willoughby Sharp pioneered a postmodern version of kinetic art that expanded the definition to include movement either of the artist or the object itself. "It was really interesting, because it was in this moment artists were saying, ‘We don’t even need an object, because art is just an idea,’” says Tassie. “Air became a material to those artists who thought art could be invisible, kinetic or just an experience."

Willoughby’s 1968 show helped shape UFMA’s current exhibit, Tassie says. But her hope is that her exhibit responds to more contemporary issues: “Willoughby focused much more on formal concerns: inflatable sculpture, kinetic sculpture, condensed air. Our (show) goes way beyond the sort of aesthetic concerns of art to the political possibilities.” As UFMA’s promotional page puts it, “This exhibition is intended to enter and move through you, past gallery walls and exit signs, and into your everyday conversations, classrooms, and voting booths.”

At least that’s the idea.  

“Air” is every art lover’s dream — an ambitious show with blue-chip talent that addresses some of the most complex themes of our time. But even as climate change dries up the Great Salt Lake, Utah remains a stubbornly conservative state. Utah’s eight sovereign nations are meeting continued opposition to eliminating Columbus Day, for example, and leaders of Black Lives Matter Utah have left the organization (and state) because of the death threats they receive. One can’t help asking: How will a show with such explicitly political themes come off in Red State Utah?

“I am bracing myself,” Tassie says. “I do think it’s not going to be for everybody.”

“Air” runs July 16 to December 11, 2022. For more information about the exhibition, visit https://umfa.utah.edu/air.

Born in California and lugged to the Lone Star State as a pre-teen, BK Clapham (they/he) is equal parts Angeleno and Texan. Ten years in New York City added a whole lot of Harlem to the mix. BK discovered the power of storytelling while working for The New York Times. A proud alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin and graduate of the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, BK served as a senior editor for 5280, Denver’s city magazine, and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. They live in Denver, Colorado, with their husband and cat.