PHOTO: Eden Conference

‘And Breathe…’ is a welcome breath of fresh air

Jayne Wilton has spent the last decade exploring the act of breathing, collaborating variously with particle physicists to capture the ephemeral phenomenon which we take, so often, for granted. ‘And Breathe…’ combines selections from ‘Drawing Breath’, ‘Expire’ and ‘Breathe’ – studies on “evocative records of moments in time” made tangible through novel methods of capture, transmuting the fleeting breath into a lasting imprint.

‘And Breathe…’ has been curated splendidly by James Mogg at the Old Fire Station. The gallery occupies a tall, spacious room, white-lit with crisp air-conditioning. Away at last from the bustle of Gloucester Green, the welcome visitor may notice within the serenity their own, slow breath. Perhaps I was lucky enough to have been the sole visitor that evening – yet there is something of the magical in the way that ‘And Breathe…’ summons a silent crowd upon its walls.

Appropriately, the first piece to encounter is named ‘Sing’. These bright turquoise aluminium prints depict the joyous community of song shared by Royal Brompton Hospital patients: through “breathing through a light source onto photographic film”, their music is transformed into splashes of bold blue upon the metal. In the adjacent exhibit, a sample from the larger work ‘Expire’, the artist has dusted ninety-nine bubbles with graphite and allowed them to burst, leaving fragile traces of breath upon paper. “They are themselves ephemeral due to the inability to fix graphite,” says Wilton. Even in this small corner of the gallery, Wilton has succeeded in both conjuring a throng of captured voices, and reminding of their ultimate transience.

In contrast, fourteen solid copper plates line the westward wall: this is ‘Breathe’, a series of rectangular etchings with curious dewdrops of rusty colour. These are the exhalations of CERN scientists, captured first on the surface of the copper, then etched over by Wilton in her studio. It is a peculiar privilege to trace a finger over the bumps of each etching. Its physicality and permanence demonstrates Wilton’s great achievement in consecrating a fleeting moment in these peoples’ lives to history – after all, what is a sketch or photograph but a representation of a moment in time past?

Yet despite its suggestions of the grandiose, there is also a beautiful simplicity to ‘Breathe’: the anonymity of the fourteen framed etchings relates to the basic human need shared by each and every visitor to this exhibition. Spherical structures hang lung-like from the high ceiling: this one is ‘Blow’, a physical representation of exhalation. This is the weaker exhibit: anyone who has ever blown up a balloon knows how their lungs are emptied, but, despite its technical shortcomings, this micro-installation successfully demands that we look up and consider the height of – and the air within – the gallery’s vault.

‘And Breathe…’ continues in monochrome with ‘Crowd’ and ‘Cacophony’ – these two respectively are transcribed exhalations using the same techniques as ‘Sing’, and a series of small drawings – which serve more as a recapitulation of the exhibition than individual, stand-out creations. True to its name, ‘Crowd’ overlays individual exhalations behind each other, obfuscating each successive recording. Similarly, ‘Cacophony’ provokes incoherence, through smatterings of grey upon a white canvas.

Throughout the exhibition Wilton is keen to paint the beauty of breathing – but she confronts equally the struggle for individuality in a world where everyone breaths, speaks, shouts, sings, argues. ‘And Breathe…’ is a welcome, novel exhibition. Seeing our exhalations expressed as explosions of colour, sinewy and frantic, yet stubbornly persistent, is absolutely a breath of fresh air. The visitor is left with the impression that Jayne Wilton follows you out of the exhibition, whispering thoughtfully, “Look: every breath takes up space. This is the contribution you make every day – not only to the world, but to art.”