The activist and the government expert, both well versed on the subject of Utah’s frequently bad air, were fascinated by the incubator.
The “Air Lab” — one of the works in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibition, “Air” — is the work of Diné artist Will Wilson. It is a hexagonal incubator that surveys and documents the effects of abandoned uranium mines on soil, water and air on the Navajo Nation.
It sounds a bit gloomy, but there’s an element of hope, too: Inside the structure are several plants growing, including a Four Corners potato.
Around the device, photographs of those abandoned uranium mines are displayed, along with Indigenous gas masks from California artist Naomi Bebo.
Elisabeth Luntz, with the advocacy group Utah Moms for Clean Air, looks at the display and considers how things got that way. “The government prevents us from finding solutions, that’s what’s happened, because there’s too much money to be made, to not [be] finding solutions,” Luntz said.
Corbin Anderson, manager of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s Air Quality Bureau, said the artwork allowed him to link his work to the people affected.
“Sometimes in my work, you kind of get disconnected,” Anderson said. “You get so much into the minutiae of science, chemistry, sources and all that.”
UMFA’s “Air” exhibition, which opened last week and runs through Dec. 11, features works by 16 artists — three of them from Utah — that look at the idea of air quality from different perspectives: Environmental, social justice and cultural.
In Utah, where air quality is threatened by pollution and the warm-air inversion that periodically traps smoggy air in the Salt Lake Valley, the exhibition hits at an interesting time. A week before the exhibition’s opening, parts of the Salt Lake Valley saw ash raining down from a summer wildfire near Stockton, some 40 miles away.
Some air problems happen more frequently. This year, the American Lung Association ranks Salt Lake City, Provo and Orem 10th out of 226 metropolitan areas for the most days with high ozone levels. At one point last August, Salt Lake City, inundated with smoke from western wildfires, was measured as having the worst air in the world.
Thinking about air and people
Luntz and Anderson toured the exhibition just before it opened on July 16, and shared their thoughts.
Anderson said he was struck by the theme of connectivity — how the artworks link humans with their environment. “Even though it’s a visual display, it’s a listening opportunity,” he said. “It’s listening to what people are feeling, what they’re experiencing.”
Luntz called the exhibition “powerful, effective and exactly what we need to communicate the significance and importance of taking action on air and our environment.”
They agreed that the presentation and art media used are crucial to the exhibition’s power.
“It’s an expression, an emotion, and not something that’s presented as a debate topic,” 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 placing blame or finger-pointing.”
“Art as activism is an incredibly powerful tool,” Luntz said. “There are just less restrictions in art to communicate messages, and it’s more pervasive, lasting, permanent and effective.”
Outside the museum, Luntz and Anderson take different approaches to the problems of Utah’s air quality.
For Luntz, the activist, it’s 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 remains connected to the non-science world to shape public policy.”
How air connects us
When Whitney Tassie, who curated the “Air” exhibition, left Chicago to take the job at UMFA 10 years ago, her new colleagues warned her about Utah’s infamous inversions, and how they concentrated air pollution over the Salt Lake Valley.
“I was like, ‘Whatever, air pollution is everywhere,’” recalled Tassie, who is ending her 10-year stint as UMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, and has relocated to Ithaca, New York, with her family.
She learned to take the Utah pollution seriously when she and her husband wanted to start a family. After doing research, she bought a PM2.5 mask, then only available in Singapore, and wore it throughout her pregnancies. Still, she struggled; one pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and her two children had low birth weights.
The “Air” exhibition, she said, is “a labor of love,” and quite personal to her. As planning for the exhibition, the idea of “the kinetic power of air” became the notion that tied it all together.
“Artists today are using air to talk about the things that are most important in their communities,” Tassie said. “The health concerns around pollution, housing rights, police brutality, the racial justice movement. All these artists considering air through these lenses are really thinking about how air connects us.”
Take, for example, Utah artist Virginia Catherall’s “Air Quality Scarf,” which she knit over 2020, one thread a 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 this insane year where everything grounded to a halt and where the planet took a breath.”
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 on, a sight she said is familiar to people who live on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Utah photojournalist Ed Kosmicki’s photos of Utah’s air quality, and protests against pollution, were taken on “red” air days, and all feature the Utah State Capitol at the center. The photos are accompanied by QR codes that take museumgoers directly to contact information for their elected representatives.
“It’s my reaction to living here,” said Kosmicki, who moved to Utah from Carbondale, Colorado, in 2008, because the air quality in the Colorado capital was bad. Kosmicki said he hopes to get the Legislature to pay attention. “It’s affecting them as much as any of us,” he said. “They can do something. That’s the whole point.”
Another interactive element in the exhibition allows visitors to see which areas of the state have the worst air pollution, using an iPad to zoom in on the museumgoer’s street address.
Meanwhile, people in the museum might hear the sound of air rushing above them. It’s sound from from Anna Tsouhlarakis’ “Breath of Wind,” in which the artist examines the legacy of uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. It has a calming and centering effect.
Involving youth and self-accountability
Another element of the exhibition is a display of 16 posters from Utah student artists, winners of the Utah High School Clean Air Marketing Contest. The posters — such as one showing a melting Olaf, the snowman from Disney’s “Frozen” — feature the young artists’ different takes on pollution in the state.
“Young people are fighting every day for our survival, and we wanted to make sure that their voices were present and strong in this exhibition,” said Annie Burbidge Ream, the museum’s co-director of learning and engagement. “Our hope is that visitors will leave this exhibition with a little bit of hope and maybe a little bit of fire in them 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” depicts 10 international leaders — including Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and former U.S. President Donald Trump — who gave speeches at climate summits between 2011 and 2018. Abeles left the plates outdoors in several of the leaders’ capital cities, collecting smog particles, before glazing.
UMFA also wanted to be authentic about its own impact on air and the environment, Tassie said, and examined how marketing, graphic design and shipping can do to the air.
“Let’s practice what we preach,” Tassie said. Because of that, the exhibition uses no vinyl — which is often employed in museum signage. Instead, the museum employed a process, called AIR-INK, which uses ink made from smog particles.
“Museums are not neutral. Museums are political. Museums are engaged in everyday life,” Tassie said. “[If] we want to be relevant, useful and be something that our community values, we need to engage in these conversations that are important to our community.”
“Air” will be on display through Dec. 11 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, on the University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City. For details about tickets, museum hours and related events, go to umfa.utah.edu.