Breathing In

October 20, 2009  |  Exhibitions

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
20 October – 22 November 2009


“In April 2007 the artist Angela Palmer embarked on a journey to capture the physical properties of climate change. She travelled to the home of the most polluted air on Earth, Linfen in Shanxi Province, China, and to the place with the purest air and water on Earth, Cape Grim on the northwest tip of Tasmania.

The objects from her journey – including white uniforms worn for one day in both locations now contrasting in colour due to levels of air pollution, face cleansers that reveal dirt from the atmosphere, collected air, coal, abandoned sandals – will be showcased at Wellcome Collection as part of ‘Breathing In’, an installation of Angela Palmer’s work.

Angela Palmer spent a week in Linfen, where she collected water and air samples, recovered abandoned objects and captured local social activity through both film and photography. She then travelled directly to Tasmania, where she repeated her itinerary of evidence gathering. In both locations, Palmer chose to wear the stark white uniforms for the duration of one day, providing the environment with a blank canvas onto which the climate could inscribe itself.

Commenting on her experiences of visiting both locations, Angela Palmer said: “In reaching Linfen, described as the world’s ‘hell on earth’, I found it blackened with generations of coal dust. The smell of rotten eggs in the polluted air was at times overwhelming. But the people seemed happier, friendlier and more at ease with their surroundings than their pampered counterparts in the West. In contrast the Tasmanian reserve was daunting. People were hidden from sight behind net curtains. Picket fences surrounded properties, enclosing perfectly manicured gardens. After a few days, I longed for the sense of community so electrifying and absorbing in the streets of Linfen.”

On her return to the UK, she asked a number of scientists to analyse her findings. Microscopic images of collected air particles are presented alongside the primary evidence. These images make distinct what is invisible to the human eye, enabling the artist to “highlight air as the precious commodity of the future”.

While the objects sit in the display case as extracted scientific data, the accompanying film footage transports the viewer to the sights and sounds of two contrasting landscapes. We are reminded of the parallel lives of people living in such extreme conditions. The silence and stillness of Tasmania contrasts greatly with the bustling activity of Linfen, where pollution from its rapidly expanding coal industry is causing an alarming increase in respiratory and cancer-related illnesses.

Since the creation of ‘Breathing In’, climate change has continued to be a central concern of Palmer’s work. For her latest project, ‘Ghost Forest’, she is transporting ten tropical rainforest tree stumps from a commercially logged forest in western Ghana and placing them in Trafalgar Square (16-22 November 2009), the epicentre of Western industrialisation over the past 200 years. Ghost Forest will travel to Copenhagen to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference in December.

James Peto, senior curator at Wellcome Collection comments: “The coincidence of ‘Breathing In’ at Wellcome Collection and the appearance of the artist’s ‘Ghost Forest’ in Trafalgar Square will highlight the extraordinary ingenuity and resourcefulness that Angela Palmer has brought to the challenge of how to engage the wider public with the consequences of climate change.””