The activist and the government expert, both well acquainted with Utah’s often bad air, were intrigued by the incubator.
The Air Lab – one of the works in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ new Air exhibit – is the work of Diné artist Will Wilson. It is a hexagonal incubator that studies and documents the effects of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation’s soil, water and air.
It sounds a bit grim, but there’s also an element of hope: Several plants grow in the structure, including a Four Corners potato.
Surrounding the device are photographs of these abandoned uranium mines along with Indigenous gas masks by California artist Naomi Bebo.
Elisabeth Luntz from the advocacy group Utah Moms for Clean Air looks at the display and wonders how it came about. “The government is preventing us from finding solutions, this has happened because there is too much money to be made not to do it [be] Finding solutions,” said Luntz.
Corbin Anderson, manager of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s Air Quality Office, said the artwork allows him to connect his work to the people affected.
“Sometimes you kind of lose connection with my work,” Anderson said. “You get so much into the details of the science, chemistry, sources and all that.”
The UMFA exhibition “Air,” which opened last week and runs through Dec. 11, features works by 16 artists — three of them from Utah — who explore the idea of air quality from multiple perspectives: environmental, social justice, and Culture.
In Utah, where air quality is threatened by pollution and the warm-air inversion that regularly traps smog-laden air in the Salt Lake Valley, the exhibit comes at an interesting time. A week before the exhibit opened, parts of the Salt Lake Valley saw ash rain down from a summer wildfire near Stockton, about 40 miles away.
Some air problems are more common. This year, the American Lung Association ranked Salt Lake City, Provo, and Orem 10th out of 226 metro areas for most days with high ozone levels. At one point last August, Salt Lake City, awash with smoke from western wildfires, was measured as having the worst air quality in the world.
Thinking about air and people
Luntz and Anderson toured the exhibit just before it opened on July 16 and shared their thoughts.
Anderson said he was struck by the theme of connectivity – how the artworks connect people to their surroundings. “Although it’s a visual representation, it’s an opportunity to listen,” he said. “It means listening to what people are feeling, what they are experiencing.”
Luntz called the exhibition “powerful, effective and just what we need to convey the meaning and importance of taking action on the air and our environment”.
They agreed that the presentation and art media used are crucial to the power of the exhibition.
“It’s an expression, an emotion, and not something presented as a topic of discussion,” Anderson said. “People get defensive because they feel like they’re being pointed out and blamed for it. I think art has the ability to present things without making blame or finger pointing.”
“Art as activism is an incredibly powerful tool,” Luntz said. “There are simply fewer limitations in the art of communicating messages, and it’s more pervasive, more enduring, more enduring, and more effective.”
Outside the museum, Luntz and Anderson deal with Utah’s air quality issues in different ways.
For Luntz, the activist, it’s about getting bills through the legislature, whose members, she said, are beginning to understand that it’s “becoming an economic concern.”
For Anderson, it’s about ensuring that “good science stays connected to the non-scientific world to shape public policy.”
How air connects us
When Whitney Tassie, who curated the Air exhibit, left Chicago to take the job at UMFA 10 years ago, her new colleagues warned her about Utah’s infamous inversions and how they were concentrating air pollution over the Salt Lake Valley.
“I was like, ‘Anyway, air pollution is everywhere,'” recalls Tassie, who ended her 10-year stint as curator of modern and contemporary art at UMFA and moved to Ithaca, New York with her family.
She learned to take pollution seriously in Utah when she and her husband were trying to start a family. After doing her research, she bought a PM2.5 mask, only available in Singapore at the time, and wore it throughout her pregnancy. Still she fought; One pregnancy ended in miscarriage and their two children were low birth weight.
The “Air” exhibition, she said, is “an affair of the heart” and very personal to her. When planning the exhibition, the idea of the “kinetic force of air” became the unifying concept.
“Artists today are taking the air to speak about the things that matter most in their communities,” Tassie said. “The health concerns of pollution, housing rights, police brutality, the racial justice movement. All these artists looking at air through these lenses are really thinking about how air connects us.”
Take Utah artist Virginia Catherall’s “Air Quality Scarf,” for example, which she knit throughout 2020, one thread per day, using the color of that day’s local air quality meter – green, yellow, or red.
Tassie said the scarf “became this amazing record of that crazy year where everything ground to a halt and where the planet took a breather.”
Another Utah artist, Elisabeth Bunker, contributed the oil painting View of Refineries from 300 N on January 11th, 2019. The view, Bunker said, is “literally in my backyard,” and the painting is based on a photograph she took — capturing and reflecting a sight she said is familiar to people living on the West Side live from Salt Lake City.
Utah photojournalist Ed Kosmicki’s photos of Utah air quality and anti-pollution protests were taken on “red” air days, and all feature the Utah State Capitol at center. The photos are accompanied by QR codes that take museum visitors directly to the contact information of their elected officials.
“It’s my reaction to living here,” says Kosmicki, who moved to Utah from Denver in 2008 because of poor air quality in the Colorado capital. Kosmicki said he hopes to get the Legislature to pay attention. “It affects them as much as it affects any of us,” he said. “You can make a difference. That’s the whole point.”
Another interactive element in the exhibit allows visitors to see which areas of the state have the worst air pollution by zooming in on the museum visitor’s street address with an iPad.
Meanwhile, people in the museum may hear the sound of air rushing overhead. It is a sound effect that is directed into the exhibition – one that has a calming and centering effect.
Involvement of youth and self-responsibility
Another element of the exhibit is a display of 16 posters by Utah student artists, winners of the Utah High School’s Clean Air Marketing Contest. The posters – such as one showing a melting Olaf, the snowman from Disney’s Frozen – show the young artists’ different perspectives on pollution in the state.
“Young people fight to survive every day, and we wanted to make sure their voices are present and strong in this exhibition,” said Annie Burbidge Ream, the museum’s associate director of learning and engagement. “We hope that visitors will leave this exhibition with a little hope and maybe a little fire to be empowered to do something about it.”
On the wall opposite the posters, California-based artist Kim Abeles’ 2019 work “World Leaders in Smog” features ten international leaders – including Angela Merkel of Germany, Emmanuel Macron of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia and the former US President Donald Trump — who delivered speeches at climate summits between 2011 and 2018. Abeles left the slabs outdoors in several world leaders’ capitals to collect smog particles before glazing them.
UMFA also wanted to be authentic about its own air and environmental impacts, Tassie said, examining how marketing, graphic design and shipping can impact air.
“Let’s practice what we preach,” said Tassie. For this reason, the exhibition does not use vinyl – which is often used in museum signage. Instead, the museum used a process called AIR-INK, which uses ink made from smog particles.
“Museums are not neutral. Museums are political. Museums deal with everyday life,” said Tassie. “[If] We want to be relevant, useful and something our community values, we need to be involved in these conversations that matter to our community.”
“Air” is on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at 410 Campus Center Drive on the University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City, through December 11. For details on admission tickets, museum hours and related events, see umfa.utah.edu.