BREATHING at Hamburger Kunsthalle with VALIE EXPORT and Markus Schinwald
The large-scale theme-based exhibition explores the various facets of breathing and its representation in the art of the Old Masters and the present day. More than a hundred works are being placed into exciting dialogues, sometimes transcending different eras. The result is an unconventional exchange on an existential topic, shedding a light on what may at first seem like an unconscious, biological process, yet in fact offers multiple social and political dimensions.
Since antiquity, breath has been more than just air flowing in and out of the body. It is a vehicle of life, thought, inspiration and, in many world cultures, also of the soul. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, breathing is regarded as a central moment of the divine act of creation. Breathing suggests life, while its loss is tantamount to death. Yet in everyday life our respiration is often taken for granted; it only comes into focus when it dwindles – due to disease, climate change, pandemics or physical violence. For instance, the last words of George Floyd in 2020 »I can’t breathe« have virtually become a synonym for racist and institutional violence.
Far from being a neutral physiological process, breathing always conveys a – more or less obvious – socio-political message. An investigation into the supply of air reveals mechanisms of social and political inclusion and exclusion on many different levels, also and especially in the time of a global pandemic in which access to oxygen has become vital. At the same time, we have experienced the potential of aerosols to cause illness and possibly even death. Our own breath and that of our fellow human beings has become a danger that is completely contrary to the life-sustaining principle of breathing and radically questions our relationship to the world and to each other.