Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 2, 2022
Caterina Albano Out of Breath: Vulnerability of Air in Contemporary Art Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. 96 pp. Paper $10.00 (9781517913557)

Out of Breath is a critical study of the significance and politics of breathing, guided throughout by explorations of breath and air in contemporary art. A slender book of just ninety-six pages, written in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is as much an essay about the political implications of humanity’s dependence on a shared substrate of air, and air’s implication in global injustice and violence, as a study of art history or criticism. But by the same token, it is also an incisive example of how contemporary art can lend itself to being treated as theory or as activism, such that accounts of artworks by artists like John Akomfrah and the Otolith Group mesh seamlessly with ideas from various writers and theorists to produce a compelling account of the importance and vulnerability of breathing.

Out of Breath comprises four short chapters, exploring breathing’s embodied ethics, the politics of air pollution, crises that arise from technological warfare and nuclear energy, and the power of the state to regulate and deny breath. There are no images; instead, footnotes point the reader to webpages displaying the artworks discussed. Yet it seems hard to complain at having to turn occasionally to a screen, given the toxic air pollution that arises both from the processes of color printing and the emissions of freighting heavy glossy pages around the globe. Art books too are implicated within “the unequal distribution of safe breathing” (24–25) that is Albano’s concern, and so it is worth noting that in this study the alternative worked very well, especially given its emphasis on time-based works.

The first chapter sets out a framework for understanding the ethical and ontological dimensions of breathing. It thinks through breathing’s inherent vulnerability and also its radical permeability: how breathing involves a oneness with the universe as beings inhale and exhale the world’s atoms. Referring to a range of traditions of thought, from vedantic teachings to Luce Irigaray, it ultimately posits “breathing as entanglement.”

The second chapter discusses air pollution and toxicity, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. In both instances, Albano rightly emphasizes the vulnerability of those groups with histories of exploitation and marginalization that suffer most from these invisible causes of breathlessness. In this chapter, Albano draws attention to the social and political meaning of breath with reference to a range of contemporary thinkers including Christina Sharpe and Jacques Rancière, and a range of artists and artistic practice groups that since the 1970s have tried to raise public awareness about air pollution, including Ant Farm and Forensic Architecture. While not a chapter concerned with offering new interpretations or histories, Albano ties this range of thinkers and artists together persuasively, making a case that to see breath is also to see issues of social justice that are too often invisible.

The book’s third chapter focuses on the deep past and deep future of breath, by turning to what Michele Bastian and Thom van Dooren have called those “new immortals,” radioactive and chemical waste. Spending longer with fewer artworks, I found this chapter all the more effective for that reason, as it expands Albano’s argument that breathlessness enables forms of social and political domination. Discussing works by the Otolith Group and the artist-research group Forensic Architecture, she persuasively shows the violence and necropolitics of military-industrial power wielded against vulnerable communities—whether through chemical weapons in Syria or toxic methane clouds produced by fracking in Argentina. It is a valuable chapter as much for its incisive descriptions of these complex video works as its succinct conclusions.

The fourth and final chapter focuses on the politics and regulation of breathing in the context of the pandemic, and of the systemic, racialized use of violent asphyxiation in policing. Discussing works by Ai Weiwei and lesser-known artists like Cemelesai Dakivali alongside ideas from Michel Serres and others, it describes the unequal distribution of breathing in a society where attitudes toward face masks are often racialized, while breath is violently denied to African American men Eric Garner and George Floyd by police. The discussion of This Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011) by Iraqi artist Hiwa K was perhaps the most effective use of contemporary art in the book.

Discussions of socially engaged forms of contemporary art often tend to be more descriptive than interpretative, and this book is no exception. This is especially the case when the artworks under consideration resemble non-art forms of political activism, or when they emerge from ideas and objectives that are roughly coextensive with the writer’s own (as is often the case). In other studies this has felt to me like a serious limitation, yet a more descriptive approach is entirely forgivable in such a short, modest book that by necessity breezes quite quickly over many of its subjects. However, Out of Breath might more legitimately raise questions for the reader about the role of contemporary art in a study of its kind. Precisely because this book offers such a timely overview of the theory and politics of breathing today, its artworks often seem to serve as hooks on which to hang ideas formed elsewhere; their inclusion sometimes seeming most effective for adding an enlivening visual dimension. When their specificity does potentially introduce ideas or problems that are excess to the main discussion, this usually raises more questions than Albano has space to answer. Again, this is understandable within the context of a publication in a series of books strictly limited in length (described by the publisher as “a thought-in-process series”), but at times it is frustrating for the reader that we are not treated to more of Albano’s readable prose and a better sense of why artworks have been chosen.

Admittedly, Albano does briefly explain the role she envisages for artworks in Out of Breath. In the preface she describes the artworks she considers as “critical practices, if not overt practices of resistance” that engage with the same “ethics, ecologies, and politics of breathing” (xi) as her book and so render these aspects of breath visible. This claim is persuasive and broadly borne out by what follows. Yet given the emphasis on rendering the invisible visible, I wished at times that this study might have leaned slightly less on the ranks of artists and theorists who lend scholarly and cultural authority, and itself listened to lesser-known voices and cultures. I am not sure that Ai Weiwei’s silk screened face masks really constitute an act of resistance. I also found myself perhaps unreasonably irked, for example, by the citation of Rebecca Solnit to note the invisibility of deaths by air pollution, when campaigners such as Rosamund Kissi-Debrah and Indigenous environmental defenders have fought for years to have air pollution’s harm recognized. Elsewhere, the use of theory that is widespread in the humanities felt more like a limitation: calling breathing an “entanglement” seems to downplay the state of oneness with the universe that Albano’s book otherwise describes sensitively. The atoms in a breath just are the world’s air and the world’s air contains our breath; to add this radical idea to the growing pile of “entangled” things in twenty-first century scholarship rather than look more closely at vedantic teachings of oneness seemed a missed opportunity. Similarly, and again given the book’s plea for rendering the invisible visible, it would have been enhanced by including a few more artists from regions most harmed by the violence of air pollution (something better achieved in the final chapter). Yet, my criticisms might well be misplaced: the wide-ranging approach across a selection of citable, canonical writers means that Out of Breath offers a particularly useful guide to this vital field for scholars, artists, and others. This surely matters more for a timely book that uses contemporary art to speak to recent experience and ongoing injustices.

With increasing awareness of the harms of air pollution, and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the importance of breath—long central to ancient systems of thought—seems today to have found a new appreciation. For anyone who wants to reflect further on how life is sustained by a constant inhaling and exhaling of the very atmosphere of this planet, and how that atmosphere is both precarious and central to systemic violence and discrimination, this book offers a critically important starting point.

Lucy Whelan
Graham Robertson Research Fellow, Downing College, Cambridge University