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Held Breath: an art project

Earlier this year, Bristol artist Gaby Solly got in touch with Life of Breath to discuss adapting the design for a spirometer kit for an installation piece she was working on called Held Breath (detail pictured above, credit Gaby Solly 2019). Life of Breath researcher Dr Coreen McGuire developed the simple spirometer kit for our activity stalls at public engagement events, including the 2018 Bristol Festival of Nature, Bristol FUTURES @ We The Curious Research Fair 2018, and Bristol Fun Palaces 2018. Gaby writes about the process and finished piece…

Last year I started an investigation into the way artists use clay to embody their identity and process of making. I was particularly struck by Giuseppe Penone’s 1978 Breath pieces, and led to wonder how one might contain the breath of an individual in ceramic form, and what that might say about the curtailment of personal freedom.

During recent years spent as a parent, early-years practitioner and student, I have become acutely aware of the nature of being just one of many individuals in a classroom. I recognised the conflicting priorities for a teacher of engaging and strengthening the distinctive character and skillset of each pupil, alongside the need to maintain cohesion and control within their class. I considered how this sits with the accompanying desire of individual children to explore and express their true selves, whilst also yearning to ‘fit in’ and find a sense of belonging. 

These ideas have coalesced into an artwork, called Held Breath, based around 30 slip-cast porcelain cubes.  Each cube represents a member of Poplar Class at Sefton Park School, Bristol; its size determined by the vital lung capacity of that particular pupil. The shapes stack neatly together in a group, every one is identifiable by the child’s initials stamped into the clay. The cubes are similar but different, the method of manufacture means that each one has its own cracks and wobbles, its own idiosyncrasies.

As a lifelong singer, a city dweller, environmentalist and a sometimes smoker, I now recognise that breathing has long been a focus of mine. I have carried a copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s prose poem Freedom to Breathe with me since I was a teenager so, in retrospect, it seems natural that I have brought this emphasis into my art practice.

Researching the broad range of artists highlighting breath has been inspiring: Jayne Wilton has worked closely with Life of Breath and provides a great summary of this genre in a Life of Breath podcast: Breath in Visual Art. Contemporary examples include Sari Carel’s Out of Thin Air, an immersive soundscape in New York that considers ‘air quality and wellness’ and Edmund de Waal’s, Breath, a homage in porcelain and book form to poet Paul Celan. Air Transformed is a fascinating collaboration by Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick which turns air pollution data into ‘wearable objects’ – part of Life of Breath’s current travelling exhibition Catch Your Breath.

In December I arrived at Sefton Park Primary with piles of paper, a bag of clay and a basic spirometer. The latter was something I put together following instructions I’d received after getting in touch with Jordan, the project administrator at Life of Breath. A five litre bottle was filled with water and set in a big plastic tub also full of water, blowing through a simple siphon tube the children displaced the water in the bottle and were able to read their lung capacity measurements, from marks I’d written on the side of the bottle. The method is inexact but representative enough to be useful for what I needed, and in the class of 10 and 11 year-old boys and girls, we recorded a range of 1.3-2.5 litres. 

In March I went back to record the sound of the children breathing; easier said than done in a classroom full of squeaky chairs and shuffling bottoms! We also started to think about what we all might have breathed in during our lives: smells we liked; things that might have happened a long time ago; the breath of other people or animals…  These ideas informed self-portraits of the children’s breath, which they illustrated on cardboard cube ‘nets’, each individually measured so that, when folded, they match the size of the child’s own porcelain breath cube.

Held Breath is a mixed-media, installation piece. The porcelain cubes sit on two low, blue classroom tables, taken from the school itself, overlaid by looped, layered audio of the pupils’ breathing – just perceptible as you approach the installation.  The latter two aspects are crucial factors, transforming the work from a focus on form and materiality, into one with a concern for personhood. It signifies the intimate, integral space taken up by breath within an individual’s body which, at the same time, connects a group as each inhales and exhales this shared air.

At the start of June, Held Breath will be shown at Bristol School of Art’s Degree Show. Later in the summer I will return to Sefton Park to exhibit my work alongside that of the children – their pictures, sculptures and breath self-portraits. Working since September on this project has been intense and invigorating: my interest in the power of breath and breathing is undiminished due to its vital role in our physical and metaphorical life, and its unique, transient condition of being both deeply personal and something we all share with the rest of the world.

Gaby Solly is studying Fine Art following a varied career in environmental campaigning, early-years education and community engagement. She is interested in the layering and weaving of narratives, working in clay, card, fabric, found materials, sound and video to explore notions of connection, identity and the ephemeral nature of being.

Held Breath was held as part of the 2019 Degree Show at Bristol School of Art, Queens Road, BS8 1PX, June 1-4 2019,12pm-4pm.



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