Every Breath You Take | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Every Breath You Take 

UMFA exhibit explores the interconnected, should-be-but-often-isn't invisible world of Air.

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  • Ed Kosmicki

You could fill a book with a list of arts and culture events that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition focused around Air was just one of them. But according outgoing UMFA curator Whitney Tassie, the events of 2020 allowed for an expansion of the idea that proved even more compelling.

Tassie—who recently relocated to New York with her family after 10 years at UMFA—notes that the origin of Air was initially all about air quality, specifically as it relates to the Salt Lake Valley. "When I moved to Salt Lake about 10 years ago, I had never heard of 'inversions' or needing to check the daily air quality," Tassie says by phone from New York. "That was something that really hit me hard. I had two children, and I had to have these masks ordered from Singapore. It was a shock."

Not surprisingly, local artists were doing work related to the subject of air quality, and Tassie noted it as something that might make for an interesting, informative exhibition. "We share [air] between each other, this system that we share globally," she says, "so I was really interested in taking an expansive look at it.

That was before 2020 threw a monkey wrench into everyone's plans—but it also started Tassie down other paths of what an Air exhibition could mean. Between the racial-justice activism surrounding the killing of George Floyd and its accompanying "I can't breathe" iconography, and the rise of a respiratory virus that caused a change in human behavior around the world, it "encouraged me to take another look at the checklist," Tassie says.

"It kept coming back to me that [the racial-justice activity and the pandemic] were both tied to air," she adds. "The world stopped, and people in India saw a clear sky for the first time. You could really see the impact of the pandemic on the air—not just in it being passed between people, but that the planet itself took a breath. These were issues of, 'Who has access to air, and who gets to decide?'"

That longer lead time allowed to Tassie to explore even more deeply the artists who would be invited to participate in the exhibition. The result includes visual art encompassing a wide range of media, as well as work by engineers and poets, plus interactive components like inviting visitors to contact lawmakers about air-quality issues. Air also folds in the idea of breath as a tool for meditation, and the impact of air on social-justice issues including homelessness and racism.

Among the participating artists is Utah photographer Ed Kosmicki, whose images of local landmarks make the worst days of Salt Lake Valley air quality almost tangible. His image of State Street from behind the Eagle Gate captures not just the visible particulate matter, but the traffic that contributes to the problem, through the frame of the LDS church's impact on local political decision-making

"As more of documentary photographer," Kosmicki notes by email, "it was appalling to see how bad the air quality was in Salt Lake City when I moved here full-time in 2008. With my background in journalism, I simply began recording what I saw as a social evil, with the hope of helping to bring it to the attention of those who could lead the way to change. As a late comer to this place, I came to learn that the political will of the Republican-dominated Utah statehouse chooses to ignore this social ill that affects EVERYONE."

With such difficult, challenging subject matter, Tassie understood that it was important to include in Air some elements of optimism. "I knew I didn't want it to be all doom and gloom," she says, "because that's a heavy experience. There are hopeful works, about the power of renewable energy, about technology used to clean the air. I hope the overall tone is not doom and gloom, though a lot of artists are pointing out challenging situations we have to navigate. It does have a little bit of a call to action."

That call to action has extended to the venue itself, which took the opportunity of the Air exhibition to make some changes in its own carbon footprint. As Tassie herself departs Utah, that's a farewell gift she's happy to be part of.

"It didn't seem right to produce an exhibition about air quality without being thoughtful about our own impact," Tassie says. "At every level, in every department, this exhibit made us take stock of our own waste, and our own decisions: different ways of putting signage on the walls, reusing [display cases] rather than creating new work. Some of [the changes] were hard, some of them were expensive. But the museum industry needs to change in order to protect our planet. ... One of the things I'm most proud of is, that this exhibition is going to leave a lasting impact on the UMFA."

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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