Skip to main content

The uses and abuses of air (2)

The header shows Capacity by Annie Cattrell, part of the Royal West of England Academy exhibition ‘Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017’. This post and ‘The uses and abuses of air (1)’ also appear in the publication accompanying the exhibition. Life of Breath PI Havi Carel writes:

What relationship do those who suffer from respiratory illness have with air? And how does that image of air – air as limited, polluted, loaded with murderous gas, air as a problem –relate to the clouds, hot air balloons and bubbles, metonyms of air throughout the exhibition? What I called the abuses of air, and also breathing problems, problematise the use of such metonyms and call for other ways of representing air. Thus other pieces in the exhibition gesture towards a more troubled relationship to air.

In the Same Breath (2008) by Kate Williams is a hand-blown, lamp-worked glass trombone (see ‘It Felt Like Drowning‘). The glass vessel displays the transparency of air, as well as the fragility of the lungs needed to play the trombone. The glass is brittle, as diseased lung tissue also becomes, losing its elasticity and therefore reducing the effectiveness of breathing. The transparent glass displaces the trombone: it turns it from a usable instrument, at home in a brass band or an orchestra, into a material yet useless object, to use Heidegger’s distinction in Being and Time (1927)[1]. The diseased lungs are like the glass trombone: useless, fragile and brittle. However, the trombone’s beauty and perfection are also present, reminding us of the non-instrumental ways in which we can view objects, including human bodies.

This non-instrumental viewpoint is also present in Capacity (2007) by Annie Cattrell (see above), another glass sculpture portraying the intricate structure of the lung’s bronchial system. The branching of the lungs – branching up to sixteen times, each time splitting into ever smaller bronchial tubes – takes us from the macro level of the trachea to the micro level of the alveoli, only ten0 microns in size. This intricate pattern, repeated in ever-smaller replications, is not without beauty. The skeletal glass structure reveals the mastery of efficient design we can see in the lungs. The lung surface area, when spread out, equals the size of a basketball court. But it is craftily enfolded into a chest measuring no more than a foot across. A perfect design whose beauty, if not functionality, are both presented and represented in the sculpture.

These artworks gesture towards the human body, but are constructed of artificial materials, whose smoothness and perfection contrast with the textured, blemished state of human bodies and organs (in this case the lungs). The contrast brings to mind the many ways in which the bronchi and alveoli, as well as interstitial tissue, can be damaged, distorted or rendered dysfunctional. Some lung disease damages the alveoli; some, like asthma, narrows the airways. The tar in cigarettes blackens the lung tissue, while cystic lung disease like lymphangioleiomyomatosis rips holes in the lung tissue, replacing the alveoli with cysts who cannot partake in the task of gas exchange, thus reducing the surface area of the lungs and rendering the ill person increasingly breathless.

The end result of all these different diseases is breathlessness, which gives us yet another way in which to view the glass trombone. A person with diseased lungs would be unable to play the brass trombone, thus the glass trombone also functions as the spectre of the real instrument, its translucent ghost. The glass trombone gestures towards the functional but in its powerful juxtaposition of the instrument design and the impractical material, glass, presents itself also as a memory or shard of a healthy past, which once included music, movement and action enabled by functional lungs.

This idea of loss, memory, and mourning for lost capacities has long been a theme in the philosophy of illness, as well as in other works, such as Adam Phillips’s Darwin’s Worms[2]. Phillips’s insight in his essay is that life’s beauty and vitality envelop also the demise and decline that is hidden in them. But this need not diminish our appreciation or enjoyment of the beautiful, the youthful or the transient. As Phillips tells us, echoing Freud’s beautiful 1916 essay ‘On Transience’[3], transience is the condition for love, attachment and appreciation. Thus the lost capacities of the no-longer-playable trombone and the no-longer-organic lung sculpture tell both of loss and sorrow as well as transience as the condition for their existence, beauty and potency.

This insight can be revealed also elsewhere in the exhibition. Returning to the works mentioned earlier, we can say similar things about the activities portrayed in them. A person with diseased lungs would not be able to go up in a hot air balloon; they may be unable to fly (because of lowered oxygen levels in the pressurised aircraft); and they may be unable to blow bubbles. Being out of puff, out of air, unable to do, is the constant condition of the lung disease sufferer. And it is this curtailment of human activity, of possibility and potential, that characterises illness, and in particular respiratory disease, that can literally take your breath away.

Recall the clouds, the summer sky and the hot air balloon (see ‘The uses and abuses of air (1)‘). Each of these gestures towards, or traces, the invisible plenitude that is air. This gesturing towards air looks deceptively simple but is only so at a cursory glance. In fact, the portrayal of air and the use of air itself is slowed down or altogether barred and complicated in both cases of illness and in what I called the abuses of air. When we pollute the air, release poisonous gas into it, or have diseased lungs with which to breathe it, air becomes a problem, the focal point of attention, be it medical, scientific, military or existential.

This negative attention demands of us to look closely at this invisible substance and appreciate its materiality and its life-sustaining force. Air is a vital element, saturating our bodies and sustaining life in its medium. That core can be corrupted by pollution, war and disease. But it is also part of the human condition, whose transience sits at its foundation, often unacknowledged but always there, weighing it down, preventing it from blowing in the wind.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996

[2] S.K. Toombs, The Meaning of Illness (Amsterdam: Kluwer, 1992), A. Phillips, Darwin’s Worms (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), Havi Carel, The Phenomenology of Illness (Oxford: Oxford University Press) and Havi Carel, Illness (London: Routledge 2013)

[3] Sigmund Freud, ‘On Transience’ in The Standard Edition of Freud’s Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), Vol. 14, pp. 304-307

Leave a Reply