Clearing the Air | Visual Art | Salt Lake City Weekly

Clearing the Air 

Visiting artists help turn a University of Utah gallery into an exploration of air pollution

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When a political or societal issue comes to the forefront of public discourse, sometimes it takes art to bring things into sharper focus or just provide new perspectives. The issue of air quality in the Salt Lake Valley is something residents confront every time they venture outside, particularly during the winter inversions. But artists from the other side of the world can look at the problem anew.

This month, the Gittins Gallery in the University of Utah’s art department will be hosting artworks from three artists—one from the States, one from Beijing and one from Taiwan—that explore and expand the current conversation about air pollution. The show will be in The Living Gallery, which lives up to its name—viewers can interact with some pieces and produce their own work on the theme.

U communication professor Kevin DeLuca—who works with the U’s Global Change & Sustainability Center and has appointments in environmental humanities and Asian studies—and his assistant Betsy Brunner were awarded a Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund grant from the university to bring in the three artists.

“The idea for this exhibit came about for three reasons,” DeLuca says. “First, SLC suffers from terrible air pollution, and as Bill McKibben and others have argued, art is and has for a long time been an important component in environmental advocacy efforts. We think that Utah’s air quality issue could benefit from artistic intervention.”

DeLuca notes that while Beijing suffers from many of the same air-quality issues that Utah does, the attention Beijing received—most notably during preparations for the 2008 Olympics—forced the government to act in dramatic ways. Those efforts included pulling cars off the road, making public transit affordable and expansive, requiring factories to shut down and construction to cease on poor air-quality days, and limiting the number of driver’s licenses given out. DeLuca and Brunner both feel that Utah needs to take similar dramatic efforts to save the air.

“[Betsy and I] both feel that it is easy to get apathetic about the air pollution issue in SLC if you don’t feel like part of the political process,” DeLuca says. “This project gives people a different way to express themselves, a means to participate and the creative environment necessary to generate creative solutions. The Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund grant at the U of U made it possible for us to bring the community together in this conversation.”

On Feb. 3, the Gittins Gallery will have blank walls, and the artists will bring canvases, cameras and color to transform the space into a visual discussion about air pollution. The artists from Beijing and Taiwan—Huang Xu, Li Gang, Dai Dandan and Mei Mei Chang—and American photographer Matthew Niederhauser all move fluidly across media, including photography, installation, painting, sculpture and video, and will incorporate each of these elements into the space as it evolves.

The artists’ work all addresses environmental issues from multiple perspectives using different media. “They all see humans and the environment inextricably intertwined, and if one message unites them, it is that if we want to preserve our resources, we need to change our behaviors,” DeLuca says.
Classes from university departments including art, Block U (an interdisciplinary program), communication and the Global Change & Sustainability Center will be participating. Several activist groups, including the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance and the Northern Utah Nature Center Alliance, are coming in to work with the artists as well, and even the general public can get involved.

The Living Gallery will have stations available for people to take photographs of the smog, of themselves combating the smog, and the mountains that are sometimes obscured by it. These images will be hosted on screens in the gallery alongside the artists’ work. Visitors can also make use of air masks provided to make a wearable statement about the issue, and other stations provide opportunities to make expressions about the pollution through drawing and painting.

“The Gittins Gallery will be a conversation in which the Beijing artists and people of Salt Lake and surrounding areas collaborate to generate new ideas, raise awareness and encourage more sustainable practices,” DeLuca says.

A roundtable discussion will be held Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at Dumke Auditorium. The artists will discuss their work, and how they use it to address environmental and sustainability issues, with a Q&A afterward.

The organizers see all this as necessary to help generate ideas: “As the variety of activist groups concerned with air quality issues in Utah make clear, there are many ways to look at the issue, and we need many solutions, not a single one, to solve it.”

University of Utah Department of Art
375 S. 1530 East, Room 161
Through Feb. 20

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