In 2020 I visited the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) to see an exhibition titled Water. GOMA’s new exhibition, Air, is the next element in the series. Similar to Water, everything on display links back to an overriding theme in some way, shape or form. Water was definitely the more interactive of the two. A highlight of Water was the room containing an Icelandic riverbed (a work called Riverbed). I am still in awe of the logistics behind its installation. I found that Air was more subtle in its approach to the theme and more about observing rather than interacting. The following blog post will start with the aim of the exhibition and then run through the themes, or chapters as they’re called, I found most engaging. I will start by saying that capturing air in an exhibition is quite a task and while some of the artworks/installations were a bit too abstract for my taste, the overall exhibition is well worth visiting.
The introductory panel to the exhibition sets the scene by describing how air is vital to life. Fair call. Without air, we would asphyxiate in seconds. Sidenote – searching ‘world without air’ does lead to some very interesting rabbit holes that I will be falling down after writing this post. The panel continues by stating that we think of air as a resource that is infinite. Especially in comparison to water. Our reliance on air and our attitude towards it is really put under the microscope through the works on display. We may not be able to see it, but Air tries to give tangibility to something that is critical for our survival and our interaction with others. There are two overall aims of the exhibition. The first is to give visibility to something that is invisible. I was momentarily concerned the exhibition would be an empty room with a sign saying ‘can you see it? It’s all around you.’ The second aim is to respond to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and how sharing air is now so in the spotlight. Another issue it addresses is climate change and how important it is to not taint the air we breathe in every day. I’ve honestly never stopped and thought about air like this before.
After reading the introductory panel I was excited to enter into the space and see exactly how this concept was going to work. The exhibition is divided into five chapters: Atmosphere, Shared, Burn, Invisible, and Change. Each chapter starts with a thematic panel that ties the works together and reflects on the broader theme. These panels are great to read before exploring the works as they build connections that would otherwise be missed. As you move through the chapters, there are changes, such as a change of lighting, to help remind you of which chapter you’re in. The Burn chapter did achieve burning my eyes with a large neon sculpture so I felt that might have been a bit too literal.
By far, my two favourite themes were Invisible and Change. I want to start with the eye-searing sculpture from Burn.
Hot Spot by Mona Hatoum
This is definitely an installation that stands out. The combination of stainless steel and neon lights makes a pretty clear statement that the world is one giant hot spot at the hands of climate change and climate inaction. The label, however, highlights that the sculpture also represents how conflict zones and struggles for power are worldwide phenomena with effects felt everywhere. It is meant to be quite a large sculpture so you can imagine yourself trapped inside.
The thematic panel for the Invisible chapter covers a lot of significant issues. Included: COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Black Summer bushfires, and the destruction of natural habitats. An intense short read that tells us there are things we cannot see which make us anxious, things we choose not to see, and those who are invisible. It is one of my favourite chapters because of the works on display and how thought-provoking it is in the context of the entire exhibition. It is, however, a chapter where you need to take care of yourself and go through it at your own pace.
In Bed by Ron Mueck
One of the first things you see entering this chapter is a huge sculpture of a woman sitting up in bed. We saw multiple people get a decent shock upon seeing it! There isn’t any context as to what this woman is thinking about or seeing, but she clearly looks puzzled or concerned. The thematic panel encourages visitors to think of what she can see. What invisible presence is causing her to look this way? It is so large and life-like – really dominates the space.
Rainbow Herbicides by Thu Van Tran
My favourite work in this chapter was Rainbow Herbicides. Depicted on the canvas is a plume inspired by volcanic eruptions, man-made explosions, and photographs of clouds. You can see towards the top there are six coloured lines layered over the top with spray cans. These are there to represent the rainbow herbicides used by the American military during the Vietnam War – Agent Orange, Blue, Purple, Green, Pink and White. These chemicals were used to defoliate areas of the forest. However, the chemicals had a huge health impact on those exposed. Tran’s work is a reminder of the violence of War and how air can be weaponised.
Black Cloud by Carlos Amorales
The final work in this chapter is a room filled entirely with paper butterfly and moth species cut out from black paper. It is a beautiful room that aims to remind visitors of the fragility of life.
Between Invisible and Change is a huge hall filled with mirrored and metallic hanging spheres of various sizes created by artist Tomas Saraceno. This is meant to create a space for rest and reflection – a breather space before heading into the final rooms.
The thematic panel for Change addresses how air can be used to ‘build, hold and share knowledge.’ There are two works in this chapter I want to focus on: untitled (giran) and the work by Patrick Pound.
Untitled (giran) by Jonathan Jones in collaboration with Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr AM
The word ‘giran’ is Wiradjuri (central New South Wales) for wind. This wall has just over 2 000 sculptures attached representing six tool types. The tools include a bagay (eggshell spoon), galigal (stone knife), bingal (animal bone awl), bindu-gaany (freshwater mussel scraper), dhala-ny (hardwood spear point) and waybarra (the beginning of a woven item). They represent knowledge passed down through generations. The display looks like birds in flight – supported by the wind. Along with the installation is a series of sounds that include bird calls and wind. According to Jones, ‘understanding wind is an important part of understanding country.’
The Air Lock by Patrick Pound
The final work for the entire exhibition is The Air Lock by Patrick Pound. All the items and artworks relate, in some way, to air. Your task is to work out how. Some are more obvious than others. It was really interesting looking through all the knick-knacks and discovering new ways to think of air. Obviously, the anatomical model of the lung was my favourite. Although the little dog in a dog bed came a close second. A great way to end the exhibition – displaying seemingly disconnected objects that all, however, speak to the central theme.
Air is on display until 23 April 2023. There is an admission fee. More information can be found here: https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibition/air?gclid=CjwKCAiAuOieBhAIEiwAgjCvcqTmizZUjLwLKdZGOB-IuUCpAL665oeIez4lfMyLXIDkQMsH-MxtEBoCSNMQAvD_BwE. There are some great associated events and also special sessions for those with low sensory needs.