Friday, 4 August 2017

Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

Exhibition: ‘Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art, 1768-2017’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 16 June – 3 September 2017

Symposium: ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere: The Theme of Air in British Culture’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 26 June 2017

At first sight, the theme of ‘Air’ might not seem very promising for an exhibition.  Rather nebulous, airy-fairy, you might think. But the show I have recently co-curated at Bristol has proved to be immensely satisfying, bringing out important interlinked themes in historic British art as well as tapping into the current preoccupations of many contemporary artists.

The idea for the show began as a sequel to The Power of the Sea, an exhibition that I co-curated at the RWA with the artist Janette Kerr in 2014. Once again, I worked with an artist, Stephen Jacobson, and with Gemma Brace, the Head of Programmes and Exhibition Curator at the RWA. I was responsible for the historic section.

A wish-list of possible exhibits was rapidly drawn up: sky studies by Turner and Constable, Millais’s notorious Bubbles, paintings of air balloons, musical instruments, windy days at the seaside, polluted urban landscapes, aerial activity in the two world wars – all provided different ways of approaching the central theme.

Top of our list, however, was Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). This is a large and very important painting, which normally hangs in the same room as Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and Constable’s Hay Wain in the National Gallery.  We were all thrilled when the National Gallery agreed to lend.  I was especially pleased as my colleague at Brookes, Matthew Craske, is writing a major book on the artist, and he was able to contribute an essay on the painting to the catalogue.

Conservators from the National Gallery hanging Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump


The contemporary section included a pair of lungs in glass, by Annie Cattrell, the artist who made the installation, Resounding, that hangs above the Forum in the John Henry Brookes Building. Themes of the fragility of breath and the dangers of atmospheric pollution were prominent in the contemporary section. Coincidentally, the opening of the exhibition coincided with the first national Clean Air Day.


Annie Cattrell, Capacity (2007), borosilicate glass made by human breath to form the intricate structure of human lungs


A week after the exhibition opened, we held a Symposium on the theme of ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere’. The speakers included the artist Polly Gould, whose delicate glass globes, based on her research on the watercolourist Edward Wilson, were in the exhibition, two literary scholars, Erin Lafford and Elsa Hammond, and a Brookes alumnus and independent art historian, Jan Cox. 

Polly Gould’s Observation Hill, Anamorphic Landscape Series (2012), with Jemma Grundon’s series of cloud images, Mono no Aware, behind


Subjects ranged from the underfunding of research into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to the responsibility of artists and art institutions to take action on climate change. Along the way, we heard about the discovery of carbon dioxide, the war paintings of C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, the poetry of William Cowper and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was a day of lively debate and stimulating exchanges.

The next element to be explored is ‘Fire’ – tentatively scheduled for the late 2019/early 2020.

The catalogue for ‘Air’ is for sale from Sansom and Company, price £25.

Christiana Payne