Currently on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art through September 5, 2021, the exhibition Breath Taking showcases contemporary artists’ interpretations of the physical and symbolic act of breathing using materials including clay, paper, ink, earth, video, photographs, and watercolor. Planning for the exhibition began several years ago, long before our critical focus on the act of breathing arose in 2020. Initial ideas for yoga, singing, and breath exercises in the gallery and even educational handouts were scrapped due to the pandemic, as musings on birth, death, the environment, George Floyd Jr., and Covid dominated our attention.
The symbolism of air and breath are universal leitmotifs evident in many cultures. Throughout the world, breath communicates, and it infects. It carries music and it carries death. Ancient Egyptians believed that Shu, god of air and light, created the atmosphere that fostered life and was an intermediary between earth and sky. In many cultures, the idea that air carries our prayers from earth up to the heavens remains strong. In the Chinese concept of Tao, the breath never dies and is the mother to all creation. In Inuit culture, the word for “death” means “losing your breath” and in the English language, breath is a key component of the word “inspiration.” The sacred Hindu text the Upanishads, declares that “Just as spokes are held together in a wheel-hub, everything is held together in the breath.” This reminds us that the rhythm of breathing matches the rhythm of the universe.
During the European Renaissance period (14th to 18th century), the concept of “correspondence” asserted the relationship between the microcosm of the individual human being with the macrocosm of the universe. As the English poet John Donne wrote in the 1630s, “I am a little world cunningly made.” There is a connection between our movements of breathing in and out and the movements of air in the world which cause wind, hurricanes, rain, drought. The literary conceit of “pathetic fallacy” maintains this inner and outer correspondence, our sighs are winds, our tears are rain, our rants are storms. In our current time, this is more than symbolism. It is apparent that actions of humans deeply affect our environment just as strongly as the forces of the environment affect humans.
Many works in the show allude to these and similar concepts. Linda Alterwitz’s installation Just Breathe emphasizes the connection between the human body and the cosmos and Cynthia Greig’s breath scans also underscore the intersection of micro and macro, with titles specific to each individual whose breath is shown but an overall installation suggesting interconnections and universality. Stuart Allen photographs the rainbow-spangled surface of soap bubbles; floating in the air, they offer the minimalist view of a delicate and temporary membrane containing human breath, putting into perspective the span of an individual human life in the universe.
Jill O’Bryan marks her breaths on paper with pencil while Alison Keogh uses ink and brush to record the patterns of her own breathing in her Sumi Scapes series. She also creates ceramic spheres that contain the volume of a human breath. These orbs can refer to individual molecules in our bodies; the materials of earth and clay again connect the individual to the entire world. Marietta Patricia Leis takes photographs of the ever-changing sky and prints them on silk panels in Breath 1 and Breath 2. The fabric is so light that it moves in response to the air circulating around it. You can watch it and try to match the movements of your own breath to the movements of the fabrics, creating a relaxing and harmonious emotion. The colors seem to range from celestial to fatal, pastels suggesting dawn and grey evoking a shroud or a winding sheet; together they could represent the span of a human life.
Artist Meridel Rubenstein clearly presents the symbiosis between people and the environment in her photograph Respiration (New Mexico), directly demonstrating the critical transfer of oxygen and carbon necessary for our continued existence. The final words of George Floyd Jr., “I can’t breathe,” reminds us that only a few minutes without oxygen can be fatal. Jill O’Bryan created two drawings in homage to Floyd, each made for the period of time he was believed to have been struggling for breath. Photographer Tony Mobley captured the protests following the death of Floyd and others, showing everyday people gathering and holding up signs about breath and the value of human life.
Breath is so embedded in our language that we hardly notice it, but we need breath to think and to speak, so reflect on the connotations of these commonly used words and phrases:
taking a breather
getting some air
time to catch your breath
breathe a sigh of relief
breathing down your neck
don’t breathe a word
mention in the same breath
There are so many ways to think about breath in our lives, and this essay is meant to spark your imagination. Take a deep breath as you experience Breath Taking in person at the museum or take the virtual tour from home.
Written by Sharon McCawley, Curatorial Docent at the New Mexico Museum of Art
Image Credit: David S. Goodsell, Coronavirus, 2020, watercolor. Courtesy of the artist.