View more photos of the Bristol exhibition here.
STOP and take a deep BREATH
The air now filling your lungs is shared with everyone in this space. With everyone who has ever been in this space. With everyone who has ever walked this planet.
Our breath connects us to the world. What we inhale has the power to harm, as well as heal. We can’t always choose what we breathe in and attitudes towards what is safe or acceptable have changed over time.
Inhaling and exhaling are a shared, communal experience, but also unique to each person, and can have a personal meaning. Deep breaths can help us feel calm, while a lungful of fresh country air might mark an escape from our hectic, city lives.
Breathing is not just a biological function; it represents freedom, adventure and, most of all, life.
Imogen Davis, My Breath
Glass, London, 2016
The first breath a person takes marks their first urgent moment of independence and agency; the first gasp for the air that they will rely on to stay alive, beginning a habit that will last a lifetime.
In a series of works, Davis captures the invisible act of breathing using photography, producing images of glass-blown sculptures which reveal her own breath.
Jayne Wilton, Breath which turns back towards itself
Blown glass form, Hertfordshire, 2015
Traditional glassblowing involves exhaling into molten glass through a pipe. To create this piece, Wilton also inhaled through the pipe before the glass had cooled, creating a lung-like form which reveals the force of the exhale and inhale together.
The piece was inspired by the Life of Breath project’s research into the ancient philosopher Philo, whose work includes an investigation of the breathing cycle. Philo believed that breath is what gave integrity to all things, allowing them to remain whole.
Jayne Wilton, Happen
3D print in ABS plastic, Hertfordshire, 2012
This sculpture, created by Wilton as part of a residency at Brunel University, visualises the movement of breath from the mouth as the word happen is spoken.
The audio-recording of the word being said was turned into a computer simulation visualising the gas exchange, with the shape of the movement of gas then rendered in ABS plastic by a 3D printer.
Gaby Solly, Held Breath
Mixed-media installation piece, Bristol, 2019
Held Breath is a collaborative artwork, based around 30 slip-cast porcelain cubes stemming from the desire of individual children to explore and express their true selves – while also yearning to ‘fit in’ and find a sense of belonging.
Each cube represents a member of Poplar Class at Sefton Park Primary School, Bristol; its size determined by the vital lung capacity of that particular pupil. The shapes conform, arranged in neat rows on two low school tables, yet every one is identifiable by a child’s initials stamped into the clay. The cubes are similar but unique, the method of manufacture means that each one has its own cracks and wobbles, its own idiosyncrasies. Overlaid by a soundtrack of the children breathing, the piece embodies the community of a classroom.
Solly’s interest in breath and breathing has been deepened by a lifetime of singing, and centres on its vital role in our physical and metaphorical life; its unique, transient condition that transforms from being both deeply personal into something that we all share with the rest of the world.
Voices of experience: researching BREATH / LESSNESS
Our breath allows us to do incredible things.
Athletes, dancers, singers and musicians use their breath to create art or push their bodies to new limits, while meditation and yoga illuminate the physical and emotional benefits of controlling your breathing patterns.
At the other end of the spectrum, those who experience breathlessness can find everyday activities like eating, walking, or even talking, a challenge. Sometimes breathlessness can be seen as positive – the sign of a vigorous, healthy workout – but for those affected by pathological breathlessness it is hugely distressing and limiting.
Breathlessness creates “a new world, a new terrain to be navigated… what I once called a minor hill I now think of as a mountain.”
Havi Carel, Phenomenology of Illness, 2016
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects an estimated 3.7 million people in the UK, but only 900,000 people are aware that they have the condition. Breathing problems are often seen as self-inflicted or an inevitable part of growing old. This stigma means conditions like COPD are under-diagnosed and overlooked.
Lung disease kills one person every five minutes in the UK, a statistic unchanged in the last ten years, partly due to lack of funding for research. Rates of lung cancer, asthma and COPD are much higher in deprived communities, where breathing hazardous substances at work and higher levels of air pollution and smoking are all contributory factors.
Breathlessness is also a very personal experience. It can be fleeting or a sign of something more serious, and everyone deals with breathlessness differently. As a result, doctors find breathlessness hard to measure and difficult to treat. Those living with breathlessness are often forgotten. The Life of Breath project aims to help people live well with breathlessness and make their voices heard.
Life of Breath researchers and collaborators are also exploring whether the techniques used by aware breathers – such as athletes, musicians and yogis – can help people suffering from breathlessness. Learning to control their breathing can help patients self-manage their symptoms, reducing their need for emergency medical care. This doesn’t have to mean meditation; both singing and dancing can be great for lung health and general wellbeing.
Paulina Siniatkina, Don’t Speak
Painting, Moscow, 2016
This work was produced as part of the artist’s Hold Your Breath project aimed at raising awareness about tuberculosis (TB) amongst young people. Siniatkina produced this image during her six months of treatment in a Moscow TB clinic and explores patients’ experiences of stigma within her practice.
Bacha Khoperia a.k.a. Dr. Love
Street art, Bristol Upfest, 2015
This artwork, originally appearing in Bedminster, interrogates the relationship between humans and their environment with a view to creating dialogue around present and future problems.
Aneurin Wright, Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park… When You’re 29 and Unemployed
Comic, Brighton, 2012
Graphic medicine is an emerging field which uses the medium of comics to convey the complex experience of illness. This memoir is based on the artist’s time spent caring for his father who was living with end-stage COPD. Wright allows us to see inside the mind of the patient, showing us their emotions, sensations and thoughts as they interact with healthcare professionals and come to terms with their distressing situation.
Keng Siang Lee, Blossoming Lungs
Drawing, Bristol, 2019
The Bristol Medical School curriculum invites students to engage in creative enquiry throughout their training. Lee reflects on a clinical encounter with a patient at Southmead Hospital in his first year:
My drawing depicts a bronchial tree with flowers inspired by a consultation. Even though severely ill and finding breathing laborious, this patient made his best effort to help me hone my clinical skills. We spent a good 15 minutes of his precious time learning to percuss, auscultate with stethoscope to distinguish between normal vesicular, dull, wheezing, stridor or crackling breath sounds. The patient was arduously trying to cooperate so that he could optimise our learning and accommodated the three of us in rotation to listen to his breathing. He must be a seasoned patient – as he inhaled and exhaled forcefully to make it easier for us to examine him. When examining his vocal resonance, he projected out ‘99!’ as clearly and loudly as he could.
This episode made me emotional but I did not reveal this in front of him or my student colleagues. Later in the evening, I had a quiet time on my own. Why didn’t he just refuse to help us and say that he didn’t want to be bothered? Of course, I knew it was his selflessness that had touched me. Even though he was uncomfortable and ill, he still wanted to help shape and mould the next generation, he wanted to contribute as much as he could.
That is why I represented this bronchial tree with different types of flowers blossoming. I coloured the anatomical structure brown to show how down-to-earth and humble this man is. The different types of colourful flowers sprouting from his bronchial tree depicts us medical students as well as future generations blossoming due to his selflessness. Without help from patients like him, we would never develop into confident, insightful junior doctors with good bedside manners.
This symbiotic relationship is sacrosanct and will shape me to be a doctor that puts his patients’ needs first.
Dave Farnham, Internal structure of the lungs
3D printed frosted plastic, London, 2015
Farnham converted data from a CT scan into a three-dimensional model of Caroline’s lungs after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer.
The technique represents the lungs’ complex inner architecture in fine detail – the trachea (windpipe) dividing into two branches called bronchi, which divide further into bronchioles. After several more subdivisions, the bronchioles finally end in small air sacs (alveoli) where gas exchange occurs.
Sophie Rae, BRI Respiratory Department waiting room
Mural installation, Bristol, 2019
Commissioned by the Life of Breath project in collaboration with #UHBristolArts, Rae talked directly to patients, carers, and staff at the Bristol Royal Infirmary Respiratory Department about their views and experiences of breathing, clean air and what makes them feel good.
The environment we work in has potential impact either positively or negatively on us and our patients. I feel it is often overlooked and not seen as important.
“Air is the fertiliser of life – it allows us to live, to move. Inside it is battling to deliver the nutrients to our body and cause minimal damage.”
This dialogue was key to the development of the mural’s design – aimed to positively enhance the experience of sitting in the outpatient waiting room, while also reflecting shared perspectives around breath and breathlessness.
Cultural and creative perspectives of BREATH
Breath has inspired art and literature. For many it has spiritual significance. The personal and cultural meaning of breathing goes beyond the simple act of respiration.
The Karo of North Sumatra believe that ‘breath becomes wind’ when the soul leaves the body.
In ancient Greece, the Oracle of Delphi would inhale ethylene vapours from the rocks beneath the Temple of Apollo. In this state of altered consciousness, the priestess would then answer questions put to her by the priests.
The Tibetan Buddhist Book of the Dead describes a practice called tonglen. In this practice, the practitioner inhales others’ suffering and then exhales compassion.
The ancient Indian Vedic people believed that wind and breath were of the same essence. The balance of the five bodily winds (prānas) resulted in good health.
Sufism is a branch of Islam which teaches a breathing control technique to purify the self, providing clarity for obtaining the knowledge of God.
The Fuke-shu of Zen Buddhism practise blowing meditation. These monks (komusō) use a bamboo flute (shakuhachi) and place a wicker basket over their head to focus on their breathing during meditation.
In Jewish and Christian traditions, God is the source of all life, breath and inspiration. The Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus and Hebrew ruachall translate to ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ or ‘god’.
In the South Pacific, the Marquesans and New Caledonians would try to prolong the life of the dying by holding their nose and mouth to prevent the soul from departing.
Our breath is light and playful, dancing from bodies into the world around us. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of it, as a wisp on a cold winter day, or a shape left behind on a window. Most of the time, we need something to help us see it. Art can do this.
Some of the first known visual art was created using breath. Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, Argentina, is covered with hundreds of images of hands, created over 9,000 years ago by occupants of the cave who blew paint against the outline of their own outstretched fingers.
Breath has continued to power and inspire art ever since, giving this bodily function colour, scale and emotional weight.
Jayne Wilton, Breathe
Breath etched copper plates, Hertfordshire, 2014
This series of images was created with patients at the Royal Brompton Pulmonary Rehabilitation Unit. Wilton asked patients to breathe onto copper plates, often during periods of exercise, and then applied oil-based ink before immersing the plates in ferric chloride. This process preserves the shape of the breath, creating marks and colours which form a unique portrait of the patient at various stages of illness and recovery.
Musician, Leamington Spa, 2019
When Pound was an infant he had open-heart surgery. “The first operation was when I was just six days old,” he explains. “It was an emergency operation as I was born without a pulmonary valve … I found it quite a struggle to breathe … when I was ten, my dad gave me a harmonica to improve my breathing. At first it was pretty tough, but after two or three years it was helping me a lot.”
Pound recalls the physical challenges of learning this instrument: “You use a lot of breath playing, especially when you play fast… when I first started I couldn’t do that at all…I’m fine now when I play gigs because you play for a few minutes, then you stop, chat to the crowd, and then play again. But when I’m practising I can only play for ten minutes at a time without a break.”
Recently dubbed as ‘a master of the mouth harp’ by Uncut Magazine, alongside touring, Pound performs in special schools, prisons, hospitals and other places where live music in not often heard.
I think our bodies are this, that we merge really, collide and become the breath of others. Here, he says, go on, have a whiff. My fingers drum his chest. Did you hear those sounds, he asks, from that comet, like whale song, mermaids?
Sam Guglani, edited extract from Fingerprints
Director of Medicine Unboxed: vimeo.com/medicineunboxed
Jan Patzke & Olivia Quayle
Anima by Joli Vyann – Contemporary Dance/Circus Fusion Company
Ringwood, South West England, 2019
“Breath is a personal topic and has been a rollercoaster journey for us. We have been focusing on breathing techniques over the last two years – initially from the perspective of strengthening immunity and reducing inflammation in our bodies whilst maintaining intensive performance schedules.
This interest led us to Wim Hoff’s practices regarding control of the auto-immune system through a mixture of controlled hyperventilation breathing techniques and cold training. We started drawing on these methods every day, along with free-diving breathing techniques and swimming in the sea throughout the year. Attention to our own and others’ breathing has informed and illuminated all aspects of our everyday lives.
We have become fascinated by how breath both limits and increases our quality and range of movements as performers. This led to experiential research with hyperventilating whilst dancing as well as restricting air flow during movement. Other breathing practices which inform our ongoing research are derived from Pranayama and Dervish. Observation of muscular tension and relaxation in movement whilst playing woodwind instruments for example helps us harness embodied insights around breath within choreography.
The question which remains a core research focus as practitioners is how breath affects emotions and physicality and how emotions and physicality affect breath.
In the performance Anima (Latin for breath, life and soul) we delve deeper into the very act of breathing and how it defines and connects us all – breath itself forms the soundscape of this piece.”
Elspeth Penny, Alice Malpass and Louise Jenkins
Letters to your Breath – A Bristol Arts & Health approach to Breath and Breathlessness, 2019
Drawing on their expertise across anthropology, mindfulness, script-writing and directing, Letters to your Breath project leads Elspeth Penny and Dr Alice Malpass developed Penny’s letter writing workshops for those living with breathlessness, as well as those interested in exploring their relationship to breath. In a spirit of playfulness and co-research, participants were guided through a series of creative, breath-related engagements.
Workshop participants have shared that this process has expanded their own understanding of their breath, how breath feels in their bodies and in their lives. Participants have been open and generous, vulnerable at times and often humble, revealing experiences we’ve been fortunate to witness and record.
We were curious whether the stories emerging from the letters to the breath could be the starting point for self-reflection, for example facilitating a shift from feelings of self-blame and stigma that we know can be part of living with breathlessness, towards help-seeking and feelings of hope.
Both Alice and Elspeth, alongside GP collaborator Professor Gene Feder, considered how this process could impact on the dynamic between patient and clinician – leading perhaps to discovering a different way to tell the story of their symptom of breathlessness when in clinic and how the clinician, as listener, might respond to these embodied perspectives.
Artist Louise Jenkins was then invited to represent these perspectives in the public arena and developed the installation Suspended Breath (pictured above).
I chose to photograph and print the letters to create a malleable sheet that held all the details of the original, enabling me to fold the letters into capsules that could then hold breath inside. This invisible breath thus becomes held as a solid form, expressing the energy created by the individual’s breath (or lack of). The display dome references the clinical gaze, bringing the viewers’ attention to both the isolation often felt, and to the individual whose story is held within.
Toby Young & Jennifer Thorp
Under The Surface – Choral music, Bristol, 2017
Working closely with Life of Breath researchers, these madrigals are inspired by the real-life experience of people suffering breathlessness and other thoracic conditions.
Three of the five texts are by poet Jennifer Thorp, written in response to conversations with patients at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and explore the frustration of dealing with the stigma attached to breathing disorders as well as the isolation that dealing with these conditions can cause.
Interspersed with these are excerpts from Under the Surface by the hymnist and religious writer Frances Ridley Havergal, which deals with the feelings of inertia and defeat common in illness.
Under The Surface premiered on the 19th November 2017 by the Brabant ensemble, and will be performed again as part of the Catch Your Breath 2020 Events Programme.
What will the air we BREATHE be like in the future?
The quality of the air we breathe has a profound effect on our health and wellbeing. For most people all over the world, breathing in dangerous levels of pollutants is a part of daily life and accounts for millions of deaths per year.
Throughout history, large cities have been synonymous with poor air quality and certain occupations – including mining and shipbuilding – cause an increased risk of lung damage. The dangers of coal dust to the lungs have been known since the 1860s, yet the problem persists today. In China, miners are three times more likely to die from lung disease than from an accident.
During the Industrial Revolution, most workers lived amongst the dangerous pollution of factories and mines, while wealthy businessmen lived in the relative comfort and fresh air away from the city. This trend is still noticeable today, with rates of lung disease far higher in less affluent areas.
With the global population rising and cities becoming more polluted, particularly in developing countries, the access to clean, breathable air is an increasingly political issue.
Activists decorated statues around Bristol (here, a sculpture of John Cabot on the Harbourside) as part of a campaign in November 2016 after over 4,000 people signed a ‘Let Bristol Breathe’ petition calling for the creation of a Clean Air Zone in Bristol.
The Bristol commitment to Clean Air was a core element in the design of the Brunel building at Southmead Hospital. The five Winter Gardens installed within the central, mile-long atrium includes 17 nine-metre trees and 2,000 plants.
Stefanie Posavec & Miriam Quick
Touching Air, Perspex, 2015
What if we could really see and feel the burden that air pollution places on our bodies? Touching Air is a series of three wearable data necklaces. Their design is based on air quality data sourced from sensors in Sheffield.
Each necklace represents a week of large particulate (PM10) levels using 28 laser-cut, perspex segments, one per six-hour period.
Time periods with higher PM10 levels are represented by larger, spikier segments. Smaller, smoother segments represent times when the air was cleaner. The segments are also colour coded. The necklaces sit heavily on the chest to communicate the physical burden that poor air quality places on the heart and lungs. By running their fingers over the necklaces, the wearer can feel how the air quality in Sheffield fluctuated over the course of each week.
John D’oh, Staycation
Painting, Bristol, 2019
D’oh’s recent works reflect a concern around fine particle emissions travelling deep into respiratory system and how this may impact on those most vulnerable in the Bristol community – children, older people and people with heart and lung conditions.
I am often prompted to create artworks in response to newsworthy events and mainstream causes. My work also addresses other issues that are close to my heart such as homelessness or environmental degradation. If I see something that I feel would benefit from the attention and dialogue my street art can inspire, then I intuitively start thinking of creating and installing a piece in the local surroundings.
Sophie Rae, Breathe Happy, Breathe Healthy
Mural installation, Bristol, 2018
The Life of Breath project collaborated with local Bristol artist Sophie Rae and the children of Shirehampton Primary School to create this mural. Rae reflected on the five days she spent painting one of the walls in their school playground.
I facilitated workshops with three different groups of children ages 6-11. I asked them questions such as ‘What does breath look like? What is a good breathing environment? What affects your breathing?’ The visual images the children created included lots of trees, they talked about the importance of open green spaces in nature and the detriment of pollution from cars and factories. They suggested people should walk or cycle instead.
I found it challenging to create a design that was reflective of the children’s thoughts, but also not too negative or gloomy to walk past every day. I loved break times when they would all come out and see what I was doing, watching the progress and asking questions with their inquisitive minds. Whilst I was painting I asked them to interpret the mural – what did they see in it?
It was a powerful reminder to hear from the children about ways they feel their breathing is impacted. This included people choosing to partake in activities that can negatively affect the breath, such as smoking, or that some people grow up in areas with high levels of air pollution which often isn’t a choice and negatively affects breathing. Quite a few of the children said they had asthma and explained how that made them feel, and how smoking from adults had had a detrimental effect on their breathing.
I hope now the mural will be a reminder of the children’s desire to breathe well and that by being part of this process, they have reaffirmed their values of living and participating in a world in which it is healthy for them to breathe.