The exhibition Air considers Salt Lake City’s rising air pollution and the impacts of climate change on the environment and social justice.
July 16–December 11, 2022
Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City
Vital to our existence, air’s ubiquity is also what allows us to neglect it and take for granted its abundance. Nearly a decade ago, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts seized upon the idea of crafting an exhibition composed of local and international artists whose work utilizes air formally or thematically.
The exhibition Air considers air a conduit to a greater understanding of climate change as well as environmental racism and social justice and excels at visualizing that which is often invisible. The impact of Utah’s air pollution is a pressing focus. Virginia Catherall’s Salt Lake Air Quality Scarf 2020 (2020) mimics the color-coded scale of bad pollutant measures, while Elizabeth Bunker’s large-scale acrylic painting View of Refineries from 300 N on January 11th(2019) captures a gloomy view of one of the refinery operations that add to this problem.
Perhaps the most remarkable among the exhibition’s many ponderings are the works that demonstrate the ways in which access to clean air is indicative of larger inequities.
Cara Romero’s (Chemehuevi) photograph Evolvers (2019) depicts four children in pre-colonial dress and sunglasses running opposite massive windmills, a powerful allegory of the Indigenous stewardship of lands plagued with genocide, displacement, and climate change. Elsewhere, Julianknxx’s 2021 video Black Corporeal (Between This Air) showcases, in haunting precision, the significance of the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” uttered by Eric Garner, the Black man whose death inspired the work. In the video, the artist reads two poems written as a response to the killing, troubling words that reverberate even more powerfully today after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Nicholas Galanin’s (Tlingit/Unangax) Native American Beadwork: Rape Whistle Pendant (2014) is an elaborately multi-colored beaded whistle that satirically draws attention to the epidemic of sexual violence and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Though Air aims to tackle a wide range of issues, it succeeds in forcing a conversation about access and inaction, namely how artists have been calling out the systemic forces underlying the health of various populations for years. Heeding this call will take continued education and activism, yet shows like this demonstrate why this is so desperately needed.