by Sharon McCawley Curatorial Docent:
Currently on view at the New Mexico Museum of Art, from March 13 through September 5, 2021, is the exhibit BREATH TAKING in which various, contemporary artists present their interpretations of the physical and symbolic act of breathing. The materials and methods include clay, paper, ink, earth, video, photographs, water color. The exhibit, organized by Katherine Ware the Curator of Photography, and designed by Matt Celeskey and Monica Meehan, has been planned for several years, before our critical focus on the automatic act of breathing arose. Original supplemental activities involving yoga exercises and breath control exercises for singing or playing an instrumental had to be removed. Instead thought exercises on birth, death, the environment, George Floyd, and Covid demand our attention.
Here are some thematic interpretations visible in the exhibit. Linda Alterwitz Just Breathe 2013-2015 asked subjects to lie down with a camera placed on their chests. Ms. Alterwitz photographed thirty second exposures of these individuals’ breaths. Looking at these images reinforces the similarity between the cosmos and the human body; this interconnection is referenced throughout the exhibit. Stuart Allen Soap Bubbles, Bubble No.12, Bubble No.10, 2015 has created videos and photographic prints of soap bubbles which contain the volume of human breath. The bubbles like clouds float and radiate color. The evanescence of a bubble puts into perspective the span of an individual human life in the universe. Alison Keogh Sumi-Scapes 2009 uses ink and brush to record the patterns of her own breathing. She also creates ceramic spheres Black and White Spheres, 2015 which contain the volume of a human breath. These orbs can refer to individual molecules in our bodies; the materials of earth and clay again connect the individual to the entire world. Marietta Patricia Leis Breath 1, Breath 2, 2019 presents us with ink patterns printed on silk panels. The fabric is so light that it moves in response to the air circulating around it. You can stand and try to match the movements of your own breath to the movements of the fabrics creating a relaxing and harmonious emotion. The colors seem to range from celestial to fatal, pastels which evoke the dawn and grey which evokes a shroud or a winding sheet; it could be the span of a human life. Meridel Rubenstein Respiration (New Mexico), 2009-2011 clearly presents the symbiosis between people and the environment. Her photograph displays the actual transfer of oxygen and carbon necessary for the continued existence of our planet.
Dating back to the Renaissance is the concept of correspondence, the relationship between the microcosm of the individual human being to the macrocosm of the universe. John Donne wrote “I am a little world cunningly made.” There is a connection between our movements of breathing in and out and the movements of air in the world which cause wind, hurricanes, rain, drought. The literary conceit of “pathetic fallacy” maintains this inner and outer correspondence, our sighs are winds, our tears are rain, our rants are storms. In our age, this is more than symbolism. It is apparent that actions of humans deeply affect our environment just as strongly as the forces of the environment affect humans.
The symbolism of air and breath are universal leitmotifs evident in many cultures. Realize that breath communicates and it infects. It carries music and it carries death throughout the world. Ancient Egyptians believed that Shu, the God of Air, connects earth and heaven. Air literally carries our prayers up to Heaven. The Chinese believe in Tao, the breath that never dies, and is the Mother to all creation. The Inuits literally define Death as losing your breath.
The Sanskrits write in their sacred text UPANISHADS “Just as spokes are held together in a wheel-hub, everything is held together in the breath.” This reminds us that the rhythm of breathing matches the rhythm of the universe.
There are many allusions, both literal and numinous, to this rhythm in the works you will see and experience.
“ I Can’t Breathe” the final plea of George Floyd lasted for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Think about what you can accomplish within that length of time if you are cooking, drawing, knitting, reading, dancing, composing, playing a musical instrument or singing. For a quick reference, note that the Star Spangled Banner lasts for 3 minutes 30 seconds, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro lasts for 5 minutes 9 seconds, and Hey Jude lasts for 8 minutes and 9 seconds
We constantly need breath to speak, so reflect upon the connotations of these words and phrases that we use everyday:
taking a breather
getting some air
time to catch your breath
breathe a sigh of relief
breathing down your neck
don’t breathe a word
mention in the same breath
Take a deep breath as you experience BREATH TAKING at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
There is a saying in Neverland, that every time you breathe a grown-up dies.
– PETER PAN by J.M. Barrie