SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting between the Oquirrh Mountain range to the west and the Wasatch Mountain range to the east, Utah’s Salt Lake Valley is nestled at the bottom of a geographical bow. Beloved for its access to nature excursions, skiing, a bustling downtown, and its four, potent seasons, Salt Lake Valley is yet burdened by its topography, trapping those who reside in what has taken rank among the worst air quality in the world. Whether the air quality is a product of emissions, weather patterns, or the valley’s natural structure, one thing is for certain: access to clean air, an essential element for all living things, is not equal.

Air, an exhibition by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) at the University of Utah, speaks to the public health concern that Salt Lake Valley’s air quality has become while exploring what it means to utilize air as an artistic medium. Air took inspiration from the Willoughby Sharp Air Art exhibition in 1968, the most recent survey of artists who were working with air as a material. Today, artists are using air to address topics that are most important to them: pollution, housing rights, police brutality, and racial justice. The exhibition also explores the kinetic and sculptural qualities of air, expanding on what air can mean to different people.  

Ed Kosmicki, from Under the Bad Air of Heaven (2019), archival inkjet print

Air is composed of work from both local and international artists, including activist-artist Ai Weiwei, conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz, and photographer Will Wilson (Diné), with pieces that respond to a range of conditions from environmental racism to political callouts. Local photographer Ed Kosmicki’s collection Under the Bad Air of Heaven (2019) captures the way policy and politics plague our air with images of the state capitol surrounded by a ring of smog. While beautiful, the piece serves as a red herring as the sunset filters through the smog creating gradients of pink, orange, and yellow effects. 

Painter Elizabeth Bunker took a more direct approach in expressing her understanding of the source, creating “View of Refineries from 300 N on January 11th” (2019), a large acrylic painting of the refineries. Eerie, haunting, and almost wet with the steam and smoke billowing out of the pipe towers, Bunker chooses to paint a night in which the Salt Lake inversion was at its worst. While the villainous refineries stand in the forefront, the piece communicates the city’s dependency on fossil fuels by including power lines and the city’s lights in the distance. 

Elisabeth Bunker, “View of Refineries from 300 N on January 11th, 2019” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Artist Nicholas Galanin interprets air as a tool, a cry for help, and as a stark symbol representing the violence against Indigenous women with the piece “Accessorize with these timeless beauties! Hand-carved Native rape whistle earrings featuring a traditional Tlingit lovebirds design” (2014). Galanin sarcastically glamorizes the rape whistle with beaded embellishments posed for a white-and-ready-to-appropriate audience, touching on both the tragic injustices Indigenous women face and society’s willingness to dismiss it. 

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) looks to the potential our future generations hold. In her photograph “Evolvers,” (2019) Romero depicts four young boys in traditional Chemehuevi dress running through a wind farm in Southern California. The juxtaposition suggests viewers consider the hope of renewable energy in the desert while trying to give an understanding of the impact these farms have on Native land.

Julianknxx, “Black Corporeal (Between This Air)” (2021), single-channel video with sound, 13:06 minutes

While the voices of sixteen artists, poets, engineers, and designers are included in Air, it was important to bring in the voices of those who will live with the environmental impact our quality of air will cause in the years to come — kids. The exhibition features posters created by 16 student artists, who were the winners of the 2020 Utah High School Clean Air Marketing Contest. The posters displayed a deep understanding of the causes and effects of Salt Lake’s current air quality, including humorous pieces stating “Don’t idle, save Olaf,” with a snowman in the wake of an exhaust pipe, and more serious pieces like the image of Disney characters Simba and Mufasa looking down at a valley of smog and pollution. The need to express concern over our public safety is equal no matter the age. 

In the effort to fall in line with the subject matter, UMFA looked internally to see how they can implement new strategies to reduce their impact on air pollution. Instead of using vinyl stickers for their exhibition signage, they switch out the medium for a more earth-friendly AIR-INK. They made efforts to avoid using paper and vinyl within the exhibit’s marketing, and the lighting in the gallery was all LED. For the artwork display, they reused existing pedestals in order to create less waste. 

Naomi Bebo wearing her “Beaded Mask” (2015), seed beads, deer hide, ermine, and ribbons on gas mask, collection of the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth, Marguerite L. Gilmore Charitable Foundation Fund D2014.8 (photograph ©️ David Young-Wolff)

Air aspires to share a better understanding of what air can mean to each of us, whether in the sense of what we breathe, how we use air as a tool, or what the fluidity of air can represent. Information about how we can protect our air is shared throughout the exhibition with tips on how to reduce impacts on air pollution, how to reach out to Utah House representatives, and more. Although the exhibition was rooted in the local impact of Salt Lake City’s air quality, the curation makes a deeper impact by bringing in perspectives from Indigenous communities. Without their voices and stories, viewers cannot truly understand the breadth of environmental injustice and inequality. 

Air continues at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (Marcia and John Price Museum Building, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City, Uah) through December 11. The exhibition was curated by Whitney Tassie.

Bianca Velasquez is a Salt Lake City native who has been involved with the arts and music community for over a decade. Velasquez is currently the Managing Editor for SLUG Magazine, a local arts, music,...