Goma’s blockbuster exhibition is an “incredibly powerful” ode to one element

When Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art opened its water show in the summer of 2019, the state was consumed by drought and ablaze in the worst bushfires in modern Australian history.

How would people receive what was supposed to be a blockbuster exhibition, worried the museum’s international curator, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, when it should have been celebrating what the country was missing most?

But as more than 6 million acres of Queensland were consumed by hell and global warming politics reached melting point in Canberra, more than 120,000 local, interstate and overseas visitors flocked to Water.

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The exhibition was praised by critics and the Guardian proclaimed it “a deep space for working through climate anxiety”.

And when Water opened, Barlow had already begun the curatorial process for its sequel. And what could be political/divisive/controversial about air, the invisible substance that sustains life on Earth?

“I was thinking, at least with the next one it won’t be so politicized,” Barlow told the Guardian.

The first case of Covid-19 was identified in Australia on 25 January 2020. It would take another 12 months for the World Health Organization to accept evidence presented by 239 scientists, led by an Australian physicist, Lidia Morawska, that the virus was airborne. Suddenly, the whole world was talking about air.

As Goma director Chris Saines noted in his speech marking the opening of Air over the weekend: “These types of thematic exhibits can feel quite abstract and esoteric. Until, of course, I’m not.

Morawska was something of a guest of honor at the opening of the exhibition. The 70-year-old Polish-born scientist was perplexed when Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, placing her in the same league as Elon Musk, Donald Trump and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But she seemed to be pleasantly surprised that the object of her pursuit of her life has now become the fodder of creative endeavour.

“I never expected it to be art…but it’s actually incredibly powerful,” she said in a panel at the opening of Air this week. You were specifically referring to Tomás Saraceno’s aerosol sculpture Drift: A cosmic web of thermodynamic rhythms 2022.

The gigantic installation of silver spheres dominates the central hall of the museum, appearing – impossible – both reflective and semi-transparent. On the surrounding walls hangs a series of framed strips of paper tape, produced by air pollution monitoring machines titled We Don’t All Breathe the Same Air, reflecting the Argentine artist’s concern with the politics of air. At a singularly local level, the work shows that residents of central Melbourne do not breathe the same air as those who reside in the leafy suburb of Box Hill, 14km east of the CBD.

Although we all live on the same planet, we don’t all breathe the same air. This is the premise behind Air. How does humanity’s most vital resource intersect with human rights and social justice? What are the air policies? And why does it all seem to relate to the pressing issue of climate change?

The fragile beauty of Yhonnie Scarce’s Cloud Chamber – hundreds of hand-blown glass pendants resembling yams or upside-down raindrops suspended from the ceiling – belies the ugly symbolism; each delicate glass ornament contains a pocket of air that the First Nations artist collected from the lands of his ancestors, contaminated by radioactive material that rained down on Emu Field and Maralinga after British nuclear tests in the 1950s.

On an opposite wall hang Thu Van Tran’s Rainbow Herbicides: furious gray plumes of volcanic ash pierced with smudges of bright orange, blue, pink, purple, green and white; a damning representation of the deadly dioxins that the United States unleashed on the artist’s homeland during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, dooming future generations to disease, birth defects and premature death.

Rachel Mounsey’s photographic series Mallacoota Fires in the Sky takes the viewer back to the aforementioned Black Summer of 2019, capturing holidaymakers cloaked in a rust-red landscape. The town where the artist lives has still not recovered and rebuilt two years after raging forest fires destroyed more than 100 homes.

There is also apprehension in the hyperreal oversized sculpture In Bed. A permanent acquisition from Goma, Ron Mueck’s work has been reinstalled for Air because, Barlow says, Covid-19 has given it new meaning. There’s something about the intensity of concern in the woman’s eyes as she ducks under the comforter.

“We’ve all become anxious about something that was invisible and in the air during Covid – and many of us have taken to bed.”

Yet here are also fragments of hope, joy and celebration.

A human figure dwarfed by a magnificent Moreton Bay fig in an early 20th-century sketch by Lloyd Rees; Albert Namatjira’s beloved ghost gums in a watercolor from the 1950s; Jamie North’s living sculpture, twin columns partially eroded and colonized by living ferns and vines. These works pay homage to the resilience of nature and the central role that plants and trees play as the vital lungs of our planet.

And there is also the show. The daunting scale of Mueck’s In Bed is paired with Nancy Holt’s Ventilation System, which fills a room with industrial-scale pipes, funnels, and filters.

Mexican artist Carlos Amorales colonizes walls and ceilings with thousands of three-dimensional black butterflies and moths in his installation Black Cloud, and Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones dominates a wall with his untitled work composed of several thousand small tools, made in wood, stone, ropes and feathers handmade and mounted to resemble a giant migratory bird murmur.

“It’s one of the great things artists can do, take something from science and creatively change the context and show us an intrinsic meaning in another way,” says the exhibition curator.

“I hope people see Air as a call to action, without being didactic. I think there is something about abstraction and a sense of elevation that leaves room for imaginative leaps.

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