The Adler Museum of Medicine and POOL present, On Breathing, by collaborating artists Nina Barnett (ZA) and Jeremy Bolen (US), an exhibition exploring Johannesburg’s relationship to the act of breathing. Mirroring internal airway tunnels with the networks dug under the city in search of gold, the exhibition thinks through the process of breathing in relation to notions of pressure, particulate, filtration and flow. The mechanics and rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, and the transference of one gas molecule for another are considered within the context of Johannesburg’s mine dust and polluting particles; respiratory viruses and pandemics. Within this framework, the exhibition asks: Can the history of the city be understood through what floats invisibly in the air, and settles in the lungs of it’s inhabitants? What does it mean for geological dust, created in a distant era, to affect the internal tunnels of a human system?
Utilising a variety of medical instruments from the archives from the Adler Museum, Barnett and Bolen have created sculptural installations merging objects including iron lungs, ether masks and resuscitation equipment with blue gum trees, mine dust, extraction residue and radioactive bricks. In altering the presentation (and so the understanding) of these objects, the artists bring attention to their physical form and presence in relation to Johannesburg’s particular atmospheric environment.
On Breathing links the global human-created environmental crisis (of which the Johannesburg gold mines play a part) to the materiality of the air that we breathe and its interior effects. This relationship is significant, the effects of which can be seen in the recent COVID-19 pandemic (in which breathing is the primary mode of viral infection), as well as the history of silicosis in the city.
This exhibition follows on from The Weight in the Air, realised at the Origins Centre Museum in March 2022. While The Weight in the Air considered the sensory implications of particulate and radioactivity, On Breathing digs further into the legacy of Johannesburg’s dust and its impact on the bodies that live by it.
Barnett and Bolen have been collaborating since 2015. With a focus on forms of visibility and knowledge production, their work and research spans a wide array of phenomena, from neutrinos to dust storms, and often incorporates researchers and practitioners from fields outside of art including physics, anthropology, mathematics and architecture. With an emphasis on modes of sensing and sensory archives, they employ filmmaking and installation strategies that create immersive and interactive experiences for participants. Their collaborative work has been exhibited widely with recent exhibitions and screenings in Johannesburg, Lima, Mexico City, Bilbao, Chicago and Seoul.
The Adler Museum of Medicine partners with academic entities, faculty, and students, in order to incubate deep learning through the co-creation and implementation of curriculum, and support innovative research and public engagement. South Africa’s unique connections between health systems and people, between health history and advocacy, and health disciplines and the arts, provide both an imperative and a foundation to the Museum’s purpose and place in the Wits University Faculty of Health Sciences.
POOL is a Johannesburg based not-for-profit art organisation that supports artists and curators through collaboration, commissioning, and the production and presentation of new work. On Breathing forms part of a research focus undertaken by POOL which investigates the diversity of engagement that artists have developed to climate crisis – be it as the anthropocene, the capitalocene, or the cthulhucene; as well as newer articulations that are emerging and being shaped across specific contexts.
This exhibition is made possible through the support of the Adler Museum of Medicine, POOL, wherewithall and edition ~ verso.