We inhale and exhale oxygen through our lungs in a vital dance choreographing the rhythm of life.
On average, we take about a billion breaths in our lifetime, but we never know which will be our last.
Sometimes we gasp.
“Breath Taking,” an exhibition open at the New Mexico Museum of Art, expresses the vital biological function many of us took for granted until the advent of COVID-19. Expressed through more than 45 photographs, drawings, sculptures, installations and videos, 18 contemporary artists explore the nature of this universal act by measuring it, scanning it, enclosing it, evoking it and reminding us of our vulnerability.
Originally scheduled to open in May 2020, the exhibition now seems prophetic in the wake of the pandemic and George Floyd’s tragic words, “I can’t breathe.”
“It’s a huge, shared trauma,” curator Katherine Ware said.
Some artists explore the human relationship with the environment, others focus on the repetitive and reciprocal exchange of oxygen and carbon between animals and plants.
Still more capture the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of breath.
Ware first conceived of the exhibit several years ago, realizing the depiction of something invisible presented a challenge. She sought artwork through her contacts and across the internet. Then the pandemic hit. The museum was closed to its staff and the public for most of 2020.
Then came work about the experience of a respiratory illness contracted by the droplets of breath.
“Coronavirus” by artist/scientist David S. Goodsell explodes in a lacy doily of a watercolor in intricate bursts of color. Then you grasp the subject matter.
Across the last 20 years, several viruses have emerged that threaten human respiratory health. The artist is a specialist in the computational modeling of molecular structures and behaviors.
“It draws you in and then you come face-to-face with a virus that changed our lives,” Ware said.
George Floyd’s death entangled the act of respiration with American racial and social justice issues. In late May of 2020, the Minneapolis resident died while repeating “I can’t breathe,” as a policeman knelt on his neck. Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country.
The photographer Tony Mobley spent a month shooting the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. In his print, a protester named “Mike D.” holds an “I Can’t Breathe” sign embellished with a Black Power salute.
“I felt really committed to bringing that phrase into the show,” Ware said.
“Untitled” is from photographer Brian Finke’s “Hip Hop Honeys” series. Shocking yet seductive, it shows a woman breathing smoke into her lover’s mouth.
Meridel Rubenstein’s photographs emphasize the mutual support of humans and trees in a fundamental exchange. “Respiration (New Mexico)” shows a woman wearing an oxygen mask, its tubing connected to a tree.
“We’re threatening our own well-being,” Ware said. “There’s that interdependence.”
Santa Fe photographer Don Usner drove across the state to capture its people coping with the pandemic. His “Untitled” is a portrait of a masked family in front of the Santuario de Chimayó. A second photo shows a pair of masked low-riders who can no longer attend their annual Good Friday cruise because of the pandemic.
Frank Rodick’s startling “Joseph (2004/09/26/00/15)” captures his father taking his last breath. The dark cloud carries overtones of release and purification embodying the spirit or soul leaving the body.
After a year-long delay, Ware is thrilled to finally open the exhibition.
“We need to think about how to cope with (the pandemic) and art can help us with that.”