We expect art to do a lot of things: be visually stunning, yes, please; express something meaningful, hopefully; teach us something important, possibly. We also hope art can change the world.
And the world needs a lot of changing: institutional inequities, catastrophic climate change, terrorism and torture, the very air we breathe — all imperil our well being. The last (which is related to the preceding) is the subject of the Utah Museum of Fine Art’s Air exhibit, the final curatorial outing from Whitney Tassie. UMFA’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art since 2012, Tassie relocated with her family to Ithaca, NY this summer, but before departing left us an exhibit that is timely, informative and visually compelling. Air brings together works by local, regional and international artists, a range of communities and age groups, and in a variety of media. A work by an international superstar like Ai Wei Wei, whose “The Way Follows Nature” features images of Hawaiian marine and plant life painted on black face masks, hangs near a “community cloud mobile” created by Utahns participating in UMFA-directed workshops. Accusatory works with a global perspective, like Kim Abeles’ portraits of world leaders created by using stencils to collect settling smog, hang near works of more local concern, like Elisabeth Bunker’s painting of the petroleum refineries north of Salt Lake City.
Merritt Johnson’s “Forest seed basket for present and future understanding,” located in a corner of one of the exhibition’s back galleries, is a beguiling sculptural work. It blends a transformative, prehistoric technology that became ubiquitous across the planet beginning tens of thousands of years ago — basket weaving — with a modern one that, one fears, may become ubiquitous as well — the portable oxygen tank. Johnson situates the work specifically in a discourse on deforestation, weaving the sculpture out of wood from the black ash, a tree threatened in the U.S. by invasive species, and placing inside the tank the seeds to grow an entire forest. These aspects of the work — gleaned from the museum’s object labels — seem unnecessary to feel the immediate impact of the piece, however: the visual juxtaposition of materials and form, a sort of updated surrealism, is enough to startle and dismay.
Some of the works in Air may be too good looking for their own good. It’s a phenomenon we encounter repeatedly: artists make images so compelling they almost redeem the catastrophes they depict. When Edward Burtynsky, who exhibited in Utah a decade ago, creates his large-scale photographs of industrial landscapes, they look so compelling through his lens you’re sort of glad they’re there. In 2010, Alex Johnstone created “Smog Lake City,” a short film depicting Salt Lake City during an inversion: it gave the city a sort of sexy appeal. Something similar happens in Air, in the panel of photographs by Ed Kosmicki. The fiery red sky behind the Utah State Capitol, the orange glow around the Oquirrhs that silhouettes the Salt Lake City and County Building — we may know, in our minds, that they are caused by an inversion or by a wildfire that would assault our lungs, but our eyes experience pleasure in a visually-compelling transformation of the landscape.
Some of the more impactful pieces in the exhibition are those offering practical solutions for societal ills: Michael Rakowitz’ inflatable sculpture, which occupies an entire room at the back of the exhibition, is designed to use vented air from buildings to create temporary, warm shelters for the unhoused; for the exhibition’s wall signage, the UMFA has used an ink by Graviky Labs composed of particulate matter captured from the air; the center of the exhibit is dominated by Will Wilson’s AIR lab, a portable greenhouse and information center in the shape of a hogan which offers practical solutions based on Indigenous knowledge.
Not every solution is a good solution, however. Or, not a good solution for everyone. Elon Musk has suggested we could power the entire United States by placing a 200-square kilometer farm of solar panels in a corner of Utah. “There’s not much going on there,” he said. He didn’t, however, specify which corner. Was it the southwest one, home to the Shivwits Band of the Paiute? Or maybe the southeast, located in the Navajo Nation? Cara Romero and Will Wilson might have some notes for Musk. Romero’s 5-foot long photograph “Evolvers,” which juxtaposes a large-scale windfarm against young children playing, reminds us the corners are not always empty. And Wilson’s collage of photographs of uranium mines near Mexican Hat, reminds us no solution is without consequences.
As it should, Air not only identifies some of the problems we face, but offers solutions. The ultimate question is can an exhibition produce in us the will to enact change? Here, we might have to be honest with ourselves and admit that art’s impact on the global stage is limited at best: Picasso’s “Guernica,” one of the most famous works of art from the 20th century, heralded on the world stage, did little to stop either the Axis or the Allied powers from engaging in the terroristic aerial bombing of civilian populations. We should also recognize that politically-oriented art and exhibitions suffer far too often from preaching to the converted. Twenty-five percent of the vehicles at the exhibition’s opening were electric or hybrid, which dwarfs the 10% national average. And Air might convince a few more to adopt new technologies. But will it be enough? Can individual responsibility stave off the apocalypse? Depending on your disposition, the UMFA parking lot represents a glass one-quarter filled or three-quarters empty.
We must, we should be hopeful. Humans can be resilient, inventive, dynamic. And yet … you may find yourself, leaving Air, haunted by the work of Naomi Bebo, by her vision of a future, where all the best of human art is used to beautify gas masks.
Air, curated by Whitney Tassie, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through Dec. 11
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.