QAGOMA’s Air exhibition in Brisbane reflects on real-world issues, including climate change, colonisation and the pandemic

Home Arts QAGOMA’s Air exhibition in Brisbane reflects on real-world issues, including climate change, colonisation and the pandemic
QAGOMA’s Air exhibition in Brisbane reflects on real-world issues, including climate change, colonisation and the pandemic

There’s a monumentally scaled, pensive-looking woman lying on the floor of Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. She’s in bed (under the doona) and doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Can anyone blame her? She’s surrounded by anxiety and disaster.

This is artist Ron Mueck’s hyperrealistic sculpture, In Bed (2005).

To her left is Jemima Wyman’s exquisite collage Plume 20 (2022), a column of smoke made from hundreds of images of flares, flames and tear-gassed protests, which unfurls across the wall in bruised shades of red and purple.

To the right of her is the nuclear-bomb blast of Yhonnie Scarce’s delicate and devastating glass-blown installation Cloud Chamber (2020), and Thu Van Tran’s graphite-and-spray-paint testimonies to the chemical weapons used by the United States during the Vietnam War, Rainbow Herbicides (2018).

Staring back at her are Rachel Mounsey’s amber-hued photographs of her regional Victorian hometown during the catastrophic 2019-2020 bushfires, Mallacoota Fires in the Sky (2020).

A photograph of a bushfire-affected community. The sky is red with smoke. A man wears a towel over his face.
On New Year’s Eve 2019, fire reached Mallacoota, forcing residents to flee to the beach. (Pictured:
Mallacoota Fires in the Sky 1)(Supplied: QAGOMA/Rachel Mounsey)

Is it any wonder Mueck’s woman looks exhausted? She could be any of us as we contemplate the many ways air has been polluted, weaponised, and impacted by disasters, both man-made and natural, in recent years.

Glass yams hang from a gallery ceiling. Behind it is a large hyperrealistic sculpture of a woman, and a collaged plume of smoke.
An installation view of Air at GOMA, featuring Yhonnie Scarce’s Cloud Chamber, Ron Mueck’s In Bed and Jemima Wyman’s Plume 20. (ABC Arts: Jo Higgins)

And we haven’t even got to talking about airborne viruses yet.

This is Air, which opened at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) last week. It’s a conceptual companion of sorts to 2019’s Water.

Organised in five thematic chapters — Atmosphere, Shared, Burn, Invisible and Change — Air includes works that engage with ideas of breath, the anthropocene, industrialisation, social justice and the environment.

QAGOMA director Chris Saines described both Air and Water as examples of a new model of blockbuster in a panel discussion on opening weekend: “These are exhibitions that engage with real-world issues and ideas — ideas that are esoteric, until they’re not.”

Both Water and Air were curated by Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow.

A middle-aged blonde woman stands in a light-filled atrium, smiling slightly. She is in front of two large silver spheres.
Barlow has previously worked for a number of Melbourne galleries, such as MUMA, ACCA, and Heide Museum of Art.(Supplied: QAGOMA/Joe Ruckli)

“When we were developing Water, the political landscape was quite different, particularly having a federal government which had really weaponised the climate conversation,” she says.

“Water was structured to try and bring us together, but also to spark questions around creating energy and change. There’s definitely some shared themes and interests with Air.”

While drought was the undercurrent of Water, it was the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic that really animated and accelerated Barlow’s thinking about Air.

“The pandemic suddenly made real the fact that we share this invisible resource; that there are these particles between us, and what are they carrying? When are we safe and when are we not safe?” says Barlow.

Scientific expertise

An image of hand-drawn grey smoke clouds. On top are lines of bright spray paint, in white, green, blue and yellow
The last step in the process of making Rainbow Herbicides (pictured) was applying spray paint that drips downwards.(Supplied: Almine Rech/Thu Van Tran)

Studying this invisible matter, and the impact of its quality on human health and the environment, has been the life’s work of world-leading physicist and Queensland University of Technology Distinguished Professor Lidia Morawska.

Barlow met Morawska by chance when she first started planning Air. Their discussions, and Morawska’s scientific expertise, informed and inspired much of Barlow’s approach to the exhibition — especially about the urgency of these conversations.

During an opening weekend panel talk, Morawska observed that 10 years ago, an exhibition about air would be unthinkable. But with escalating climate emergencies and stratospherically fatal levels of air pollution being recorded around the world — as well as the recent bushfires and global pandemic — urgent conversations about the precarity and inequality of our air have come to the fore.

For Barlow, part of the challenge of curating a show that is both inherently political and also deeply grounded in science was avoiding being heavy-handed or didactic.

“One of the great things that artists can do is to shift the context of what scientists do to show meaning and impact in other ways,” she says.

A plume of purple and red smoke, collaged on a wall from other images of fire and civil unrest
Images of civil unrest in Kyiv, New Delhi, Minneapolis and Hong Kong are included in Plume 20 (pictured).(Supplied: QAGOMA/Merinda Campbell)

For Barlow, the power of contemporary art is in the way it can use abstraction and a poetic sensibility to communicate ideas that are both urgent and uplifting. But, she says, “It can also fuel thinking while leaving space for imaginative leaps.”


Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno’s suspended installation of 15 large-scale mirrored, transparent and silver spheres, Drift: A Cosmic Web of Thermodynamic Rhythms (2022), fills GOMA’s atrium, and is one of the most imaginative and optimistic leaps on display here.

“The installation expands on test flights launched by the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales [National Centre for Space Studies], Paris, where I was artist-in-residence in 2012,” explains Saraceno.

A man and a woman look up at a large silver sphere sculpture. Another silver sphere can be seen in the foreground.
Some of the spheres in Drift (pictured) appear to move slowly in the air, while others seem to be static.(Supplied: QAGOMA/Chloë Callistemon)

“The spheres are models of larger sculptures that could travel around the globe lifted only with the heat of the sun.

“[The installation] invites participants to ponder the question: What if we could drift with the rivers of the wind, with the breath of a more equal atmosphere, entangled in a more just sociopolitical geography of the air?”

In 2015, Saraceno founded the Aerocene community, an experimental and open global community who collaborate to “promote and enact environmental awareness” through the development, testing and launching of “aerosolar sculptures”.

The aim of the community, which now spans 126 cities, 43 countries and six continents, is to free the earth from fossil fuels and make air quality more equitable.

“Albert Santos-Dumont, one of the pioneers of ballooning, coined a phrase that I find very beautiful: ‘stillness in motion,'” says Saraceno.

“Might we one day float around the world, collectively re-imagining the air we breathe? These are the kinds of questions that we pose and investigate with the Aerocene community.”

Silver fabric shaped like a cross. Inside is equipment, including a clipboard with instructions, gloves and a solar battery
Saraceno’s work highlights the need for a just transition from the use of fossil fuels to renewable technology. (Pictured: The Aerocene Backpack)(ABC Arts: Jo Higgins)

Tucked away at the end of GOMA’s atrium is Saraceno’s Aerocene Backpack (2016-ongoing). This “portable flight-starter kit” has been designed so that anyone can launch their own floating sculpture, drawing on Saraceno and the Aerocene community’s philosophy of ‘”Do-It-Together”.

“[The backpack] is a sculpture that’s always evolving through an ongoing, collective and open process of construction,” explains Saraceno.

“It’s a poetic tool for imagining a new era without fossil fuels and new ways of decarbonising the atmosphere.”

Saraceno stresses that people need to remain optimistic in the face of social and environmental crises.

But, he cautions, “We must stay watchful of the form that the [energy] transition is taking so that it doesn’t end up reproducing the same neo-colonial, extractivist relations we have seen for 500 years.”

Grappling with environmental destruction

Kokatha and Nukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce’s work refers to those exact violent, colonial histories.

Cloud Chamber is one of a series of six installations of yams made from hand-blown glass, which re-create the radiation clouds from British nuclear testing in Maralinga, South Australia, between 1953 and 1963.

A collection of yams made of glass, hanging suspended by wire, in a white gallery space. The collection is shaped like a cloud.
The title Cloud Chamber (pictured) is a reference to the device used to track uranium particles.(Supplied: THIS IS NO FANTASY/Andrew Curtis)

“During the nuclear blasts, the air was poisoned, polluted, and it created long-term health effects. Not just in the lungs — it was eyes, it was everything. Country is still poisoned,” says Scarce.

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