We all have an idea of the typical materials used by an artist. Squeezed tubes of oil paint and maybe a lump of clay. But air? What could be made from that? In the hands of Australian artist Emily Parsons-Lord, air is fashioned into mind-blowing artworks.
“Part of why I’m interested in air is because we are so familiar with it that we mostly forget it’s there,” says Parsons-Lord. “We notice it only when it’s different: when we might happen to be at altitude or in a polluted situation.”
The complexity of air is one of the core themes in Parsons-Lord’s work. “Most people think of it as a single material, but I think of air as plural,” she says. “It is a mix of different gases, dust, bacteria, volatile chemicals, insects, and viruses. It is a complex and constantly changing space that has altered so much throughout the history of Earth that it has influenced how life has evolved.”
“I suppose I like making something that seems so familiar, feel alien and surprising,” she says. “I hope it brings in to question other things that we accept as unchanging reality, like climate change.”
One of Parsons-Lord’s most talked about artworks was Different Kinds of Air: A Plant’s Diary ( 2014 ). In this work she recreated the air from different stages of the Earth’s history and exhibited the samples in an installation where visitors could inhale from filled-up plastic bags, just like having a drink in a local bar.
“It came from a lot of reading about how air had changed throughout the history of life,” says Parsons-Lord. “I couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to breathe different air. The chemistry in the air marks the earth and oceans, similar to how metals and rocks can oxidise. A lot is already known about the history of the air. I could essentially use the science as a recipe book, and get my gas supply company to remake the air and compress it in to cylinders.”
Air is a mix of different gases, dust, bacteria, volatile chemicals, insects and viruses. It is a complex and constantly changing space that has altered so much throughout history.
How did your audience react?
“Some didn’t believe it was different until they tried breathing it. The performance led to the invitation to try ‘future air’, which is more of an ethical conversation about the traces that humans are leaving in the air.”
Do you want us to “wake up” and take better care of our air?
“I don’t think of my work as ‘activist art’, but I hope that it brings attention to some climate issues in a way that hasn’t been encountered before. Climate change looms, but is hard to detect in a single catastrophic event. It’s easier to continue checking your Instagram and pursuing your ambitions. Perhaps we would be making different decisions if the air were harder to breathe?”
What is the real advantage of using air as an artists’ material?
Parsons-Lords’ answer is direct, and almost disconcerting: “Air is a material that everybody knows intimately. It has physiological effects on the body and a visceral sensation on the inside as well as the outside. I love that my art literally gets inside the audience. I think that’s why I love invisible materials, because no matter how else you describe or represent it, you can only really understand the work by physically interacting with it.”