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On Breathing

A Collaboration between Nina Barnett and Jeremy Bolen

The Adler Museum of Medicine and POOL present, On Breathing, by collaborating artists Nina Barnett (ZA) and Jeremy Bolen (US), an exhibition exploring Johannesburg’s relationship to the act of breathing. Mirroring internal airway tunnels with the networks dug under the city in search of gold, the exhibition thinks through the process of breathing in relation to notions of pressure, particulate, filtration and flow. The mechanics and rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, and the transference of one gas molecule for another are considered within the context of Johannesburg’s mine dust and polluting particles; respiratory viruses and pandemics. Within this framework, the exhibition asks: Can the history of the city be understood through what floats invisibly in the air, and settles in the lungs of its inhabitants? What does it mean for geological dust, created in a distant era, to affect the internal tunnels of a human system?

Utilising a variety of medical instruments  from the archives from the Adler Museum, Barnett and Bolen have created sculptural installations merging objects including an iron lung and oxygen tanks with blue gum trees, mine dust, extraction residue and radioactive bricks. In altering the presentation (and so the understanding) of these objects, the artists bring attention to their physical form and presence in relation to Johannesburg’s particular atmospheric environment.

On Breathing links the global human-created environmental crisis (of which the Johannesburg gold mines play a part) to the materiality of the air that we breathe and its interior effects. This relationship is significant, the effects of which can be seen in the recent COVID-19 pandemic (in which breathing is the primary mode of viral infection), as well as the history of silicosis in the city.

This exhibition follows on from The Weight in the Air, realised at the Origins Centre Museum in March 2022. While The Weight in the Air considered the sensory implications of particulate and radioactivity, On Breathing digs further into the legacy of Johannesburg's dust and its impact on the bodies that live by it.