‘…for we are all inherently constituted with and toward other bodies –
viruses, humans, oceans, atmospheres’
Original images: Rótarjökull in 1999 and Rótarjökull in 2019. Olafur Eliasson, The Glacier Series, 1999 / 2019, work in progress. © 2019 Olafur Eliasson. Edited by Kate Dawson.
To begin with, glaciers. Or rather, melting glaciers.
In an engaging article in Flash Art magazine, Elise Hunchuck unpacked the layers of bodily meaning embedded in the images of artist Olafur Eliasson. Appearing at first like rows of Iceland's enchanting landscapes, this vision quickly dissipates upon the realisation that the images capture twenty years of retreating glaciers. Of melting ice.
I start here because I was particularly taken by the use of the word ‘body’ to talk with, through and beyond these landscapes. Speaking of the climate crisis envisaged in Olafur Eliasson’s work, Hunchuck extends outwards, asking ‘what are our contemporary crises if not explicitly about bodies acting with and against bodies?’ This relationality – of body to body and of bodies to bodies – helps us think with and beyond ourselves. And this, I suggest, may be an important way of building a politics that draws out better ways of being here on this planet. It is in this vein that I present some working ideas below.
The politics of breathing
As we highlighted in our past call for contributions to BODY, the body – as physical form, spiritual being and larger frame of reference – has reigned supreme as a site of political struggle throughout 2020 [and of course, has long been a contested terrain].
This may be most aptly captured through the politics of breathing. Indeed, the devastating cries of lives now lost and the demands of Black Lives Matter protestors – ‘I can’t breathe’ – run adjacent to the fights against a global virus that has attacked the respiratory systems of 18 million of Earth’s inhabitants.
In this arena of global events, the politics of breathing – as the politics of the energy that runs through our bodies and connects us with an outside – has exposed the uneven lines of living that continue to take shape around racialised, classed, gendered [among other] lines of inequality.
At the same time, the global pandemic has caused what onlookers are calling the ‘anthropause’ – or ‘the considerable global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel.’ The anthropause, commentators suggest, could provide critical information on animal behaviour and better ways to live together in a multi-species world. It has pointed to the forms of nature – insects, mammals, algae – that have struggled to breathe in silence.
In this way, I suggest that the politics of breathing offers a way of thinking through the interconnected set of bodily struggles that animate our contemporary moment. Because sometimes viewing a body [sing] as a body [plural] can be politically important to both understand the nature of the process at hand, but also to think through ways of taking action.
This is not to rid of diversity or to belittle the extent to which individual experience matters to politics – nor to attempt to downplay some struggles and elevate others – but rather to highlight the interconnectivity that undergirds the forms of inequality that shape the politics of breathing. It is an attempt to draw out those lines of dis/connection between our own bodies and the bodies of others. As the quote at the outset of this post suggests, ‘we are all inherently constituted with and toward other bodies – viruses, humans, oceans, atmospheres.’
And this is not to be a zero-sum game. It shouldn’t take a pandemic and the death of hundreds of thousands of some of the most marginalised groups in society for us to see improvements in air pollution and animal welfare.
The politics of breathing asks us to think about breathing together.
BODY of work
The collection of work exhibited by Gold Host sought to bring together contributions that engage with the BODY. The broad selection of works exposed the body as an important domain of thinking, feeling and expression – and pointed to the heightened nature of these bodily aspects in a time of global struggle against racialised oppression and a pandemic.
Bringing together photographs, illustrations, videos, poems, paintings and script, the exhibition pointed to new lines of engagement across the contributions, highlighting the value of delivering works alongside each other - of works breathing together.
Indeed, following the launch of the exhibition, we have shared some of the responses we received to the exhibition – seeking to extend the work out and beyond the initial contributing artists. Patrick Ofusu’s, ‘naked’, which writes of the embodied nature of the racialised tropes of threat, and Amy Spaughton’s, ‘coleslaw’, which unpacks the visual politics of the body in an image saturated world, have offered compelling engagements.
We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the exhibition: artists, respondents and viewers. Our IN THE FLESH exhibition – which will showcase this work IRL – is in motion and we look forward to inviting you.
Moving forward, Gold Host is continuing to research and deliver dynamic entry points to animate discussion. Significantly, Gold Host remains committed to ensuring that emerging artists, and those with limited platforms compared to others, are able to contribute in significant ways. We are always open to ideas, so please get in touch.
We are currently working on the production of ‘Urban Futures’ – a three-day exhibition, panel and set of workshops to be held in Accra, Ghana.
The exhibition will showcase the work of Ghanaian artists responding to the theme of Urban Futures and offer local schools a chance to engage with this work, as well as produce their own visual responses to imagining an urban future.
We hope that this event will generate space for re-imagining urban possibilities of living and breathing with each other.
Gold Host futures in motion…
 The Glacier Series, 1999 / 2019, work in progress. © 2019 Olafur Eliasson
 Hunchuck, E. (2020) ‘Olafur Eliasson: Planetary Metabolism and the Charismatic Landscapes of the Cyrosphere’ Flash Art, Milan: Flash Art Srl, Italy: 57.
 Rutz, C. et al (2020) ’COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife’ nature ecology & Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1237-z.