The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is concerned about air, as we all should be.
Visitors walk into a spacious foyer and after check-in, education about Salt Lake City’s poor air quality begins.
The exhibition, curated by Whitney Tassie, is a community cry. The art lifts up the voices of people from all over Salt Lake and beyond.
The first room is filled with air and three murals. Each mural by the local artist evokes memories from the beginning of the Pandemic. El Sol Sale para todos, which translates to The sun shines for everyone is by Zully Davila and Evelyn Haupt, celebrates the transformation of Latina women during the pandemic. Blackness Brings Forth Life is by Vaimoana Niumeitolu, a social activist from Tonga, who also resides in Utah. Niumeitolu seeks to tell the narrative of Utahns during the pandemic and food access. The last mural, Mokopuna, (which translates to grandchild or descendent) is by Bill Louis. It speaks about human protection during the pandemic.
There are four more rooms, each one adds a layer of community concern. Will Wilson, photographer and trans-customary artist who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, shares a triptych that conveys a traumatic history of people and land. The wall panel teaches the history of the ‘racist energy production that continues to…harm the…Diné people’. The history dates back to the 1940’s with Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation land. The energy companies tested their bombs and after the cold war, left ‘toxic material to disperse in the air, soil and water.’ Till this day, the people are dealing with this issue.
There is an AIR lab (Autoimmune Response Laboratory) also created by Will Wilson that sits in the middle of the first main room. AIR Lab is a futurist idea mixed with sankofa implications. It’s a replica of a greenhouse, taken from the sacred Diné dwelling, which shows how to remove heavy metals and toxins from the soil (grow the Four Corners potato and certain plant species) .
Across the room, the voices of politicians are heard.
The exhibition builds and tells the viewer how this problem isn’t only Utah’s problem but also an international problem.
There is a Smog Map next to plates created by Kim Abeles of California. The map and the plates are hosted on a grayish wall (as opposed to the previous art which is on a white wall). Each plate has a world leader (covered in smog) and one quote about the environment. Pictured here are Indian Prime Minister, Modi, Brazilian President, Rousseff, President of South Africa, Zuma and President Trump.
Prime Minister Modi quote reads, “Ultimately, for success, moderating our lifestyle is necessary and possible, for a low carbon future…”
President Rousseff says, “Brazil is one of the few developing countries to commit to an absolute goal for emissions reduction. In spite of having one of the world’s largest populations…”
President Zuma’s quote reads ” Various regions of the world have different views on the issue, simply because they are affected differently by climate change. However, for most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death. We are always reminded by the leaders of small island states that climate change threatens their very existence.”
President Trump’s quote reads: ” The United States…will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth…We’re going to have the cleanest air [and the] cleanest water.”
The next three rooms are interactive. In one you look up and see clouds created by UMFA Community Members and below positioned neatly against the wall are books with titles like Some Days I breathe on Purpose: Learning to be a Calm, Cool Kid by Kellie Doyle Bailey and William Bryant Logan’s, Air. There is a room for meditation and Yoga. There are more installations of art like lithographs by Diego Romero and Merritt Johnson’s sculpture of an oxygen tank.
In the middle of both rooms is a film by Julianknxx entitled, Black Corporeal (Between this Air). The room is extremely dark and something about the atmosphere is frightening but sweet. There is a choir that fades in on the huge screen singing one word, breath, mingled with moving images of lovers breathing with and into one another. Without knowing you are thinking about Mr. George Floyd, your mind wanders to memories of the summer of 2020 and the events around ‘I can’t breathe’ cries.
The last room is also empty except for one tremendous plastic sculpture which highlights the housing situation in America. The Chicago based artist, Michael Rakowitz, turned his focus on the impacts of the health of ‘houseless community members.’ The plaque read ” A 2020 University of Utah study found that nearly 90% of individuals without housing in Salt Lake County had sought medical attention for a condition related to air pollution.” With instructions of how to make one at home…or in the classroom. It tells the viewer, you have read our story and you see how you are intertwined in it, now go back to your community and do something about it.