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An Incomplete Archaeology of Air


Marcel Duchamp, <em>50 cc of Paris Air</em>, glass ampoule (broken and later restored), 1919. Height: 13.3 cm., The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

‘I wouldn’t know how to tell you what I do … I’m a respirateur — a breather’.1
— Marcel Duchamp

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp was waiting to board a ship in Le Havre, bound for New York, when he decided to present a work to his affluent New York hosts, the Arensbergs, whom he believed to have everything. Duchamp had a pharmacist seal a 50 cc ampoule containing nothing but air, then presented it to his hosts as Air de Paris. Of course, it didn’t matter that the air was, in fact, from an area that was a number of kilometres north of Paris — the readymade was an act of naming. Yet it is interesting that this work was made in the same year that national sovereignty in France was extended to the air. In many ways, Duchamp mimicked the shift by asserting his own artistic sovereignty over the air. Whether or not the accord on the skies inspired the young Duchamp is unverifiable. What is most important, however, is the simultaneous assertion of property — both political and aesthetic — in relation to air.

The history of the domestication of air begins in the early times of the scientific revolution and the modern period. Evangelista Torricelli, the great Italian explorer of the vacuum, invented the mercurial Barometer in 1643, for instance, which allowed us to penetrate the reality of atmospheric pressure. Further clarification of atmospheric pressure was formalised by the eminent all-rounder Blaise Pascal, whose name was given to the measure of pressure (the Pascal — Pa).

The first use of domesticated air for transport was by the Montgolfier brothers in 1793 — a gorgeous, blue and gold, hot air balloon called the Aerostat Réveillon, which carried a sheep, a chicken and a duck for eight minutes in a demonstration for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Interestingly, the balloon was not christened after the Montgolfier brothers, but was instead named after the wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, without whose innovative fire retardant lightweight taffeta the construction of the balloon would have been rendered impossible.

Just over a century later, the Wright brothers harnessed the use and three-axis control of the airfoil wing to glide on pre-existing air currents — leading to the first sustained powered flight in 1903 of the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk. One of the keys to the development of powered flight was the advent of pressurised fuel injection into the combustion engine, allowing for a feasible ratio of engine weight to lift. So began the colonisation of air, as we know it today.

The aeroplane did, of course, contribute greatly to the militarisation of the air, where it played its first major role in World War One (1914–1919) alongside the Zeppelin.2 During WWI, the first proposed sovereign claim over the air by a nation state came from Switzerland, which believed its air — as well as its land — should be neutral after continuous violations during the war by both the British and German pilots looking for a back-entrance into each others’ supply lines. In the diplomatic fray that immediately followed the war, the first international accord on the national air law by the state was signed in Paris, 1919. So the notion of ‘air space’ was born — a jurisdiction that extends 100 km above national boundaries

Our next challenge is the preservation of air — a challenge of cooperation between nations that has possibly been made harder considering the erroneous idea that a nation is only responsible for its air.

Air in Aesthetics

There are two general streams in the discussion of aesthetic uses of air. The first is easy to name, but the second is a little harder to pin down. There is also, of course, the huge history of sound and music in relation to air, which will have to remain untouched here. The first relates to the ‘inflatable’, which makes use of the pneumatic pressure of air as a form of architectonic support or caulk. The inflatable represents a solid form based upon a gaseous, flexible and portable reality; it relies heavily on membrane technology and has a wide range of commercial applications. Our second stream relates to the air as atmosphere, haptic experience, and breath — even if it has been captured or exhaled. It’s a little harder to find a word for this. I’ll refer to this as the ‘aeriformic’. There is certainly a noticeable period of art history in which we find more and more artists making use of the aeriformic — not surprisingly, this is around the period of the dematerialisation of the artwork and the development of conceptual art. I propose that, like Torricelli with the vacuum, the Montgolfiers with fireproof taffeta, and the Wright Brothers with fuel injection, it was not until the invention of conceptual art that artists could fully penetrate the reality of atmosphere as a medium in itself.

Inflatable Architecture

There is a particularly interesting relationship between the political atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, where various architects and designers tried to translate or reify air by making use of contemporary developments in membrane engineering. These ‘breathable’ structures embodied the potential for flexibility in the urban environment to meet with the emerging changes in society.
The Utopie Group, for example, were a group of architects and writers — including Jean Baudrillard — whose proposed transportable and inflatable buildings were designed to operate beyond the oppressive property system of capitalism. The group operated between 1967 and 1970, and in March of 1968, mounted an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Much of the group’s work existed in the form of publications and exhibition of proposals. It is poignant to think that the group should cease operations in 1970 — the same year that the Pepsi Pavilion at the World Fair in Osaka gave inflatable architecture its true home, the trade fair.

Inflatable Design

The Danish architect and industrial designer Verner Panton, with his invention of the pneumatic stool, is surely the father of inflatable design. Panton, however, never marketed much of his inflatable work. Pneumatic furniture was brought to the mass market only later with the not-so-comfortable and very squeaky Blow Chair by Scolari, De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi, which became an icon of the era.

Around the same time, Quasar Khanh released an inflatable lamp as well as a seating range. Khanh even decked-out the interior of his Quasar-Unipower cube car — think of the Farnsworth House on wheels — with inflatable seats. In this way, inflatable design epitomised the commercial side of the 1960s cultural upheavals, in that it bore the spirit of change and technical progression. A big part of this was the affordability of iconography that is the basis of pop culture.

Inflatable Art

Claes Oldenburg’s wry take on pop art gave us the partially inflated inflatable. The flaccid stoop of these sculptures seems to be a comment on the contradictions of the medium — its lighting-fast jump from utopia to mass-consumer product.

Yayoi Kusama’s inflatable works, as part of her wider practice of installation, envelop the utopian vision of 1960s in the kind of LSDesign that was common to the period. Kusama’s installations aimed to convert the museum into a wonderland for adults that was furnished with a possibility for alternate world views.

The largest inflatable piece of art to date was Paul McCarthy’s 2003 installation Block Head, which was installed on the north face of the Tate Modern, London, alongside Daddies Big Head. Appropriate to McCarthy’s work, these pieces recalled the use of the inflatable in suburban culture — in particular, the inflatable gorillas that found themselves atop the rooves of various car yards in McCarthy’s typically gaudy and abject fashion.

Architecture of the Air

Marcel Breuer once estimated that ‘in the end, we will all sit on a resilient column of air’.3 As crazy as the teleological impossibility of modernistic reduction might sound now, Breuer isn’t the only person to have given such firmament consideration.

Architecture of the Air was the serial collaboration between Yves Klein and the architect Werner Ruhnau from the late-1950s until Klein’s untimely death in 1962. This project existed purely in the form of information about a proposition to artificially acclimatise the world via vast underground air conditioning units. Films showed Klein repelling falling water with air jets to prove the project’s viability. Moreover, the project showed Klein’s intuitive understanding that communication media and information exchange has a climatic quality, that it is a non-linear ecology of exchange, much like topographies of the atmosphere. The project was more in the spirit of an advanced sensibility over technical progress. There is something of the energy of the 1950s in Klein’s work, a seemingly unfettered belief in progress and expansion backed by the infinite energy offered by nuclear power.

The Aeriformic critiques

A number of Robert Barry works from 1969 titled Inert Gas Piece made use of the less-than-one percent of the atmosphere that is made up of the noble gasses. The works involved releasing stated amounts of certain inert gasses into the air, and presented Barry with the perfect medium to experiment with his interest in imperceptibility and single-direction communication. The inert gasses are labelled ‘inert’ because they are non-reactive. In a sense, you couldn’t even know whether they were even in the atmosphere or not without specific scientific analysis of the air. So, as with other Barry pieces, the receiver would only be able to perceive the work if they possessed the correct conceptual apparatus. This can be seen as a wider metaphor on aesthetic reception and the structured process of receiving art.

Art & Language’s 1971 The Air-Conditioning Show at the Visual Arts Gallery in New York is one of the clearest examples of air as institutional critique. Far from the expected reduction in temperature, the work in fact reproduced the median room temperature, hence the atmospheric alteration was imperceptible — like the codifying system of the institution that attempted to remain latent and out of public view.

As part of the creative reinterpretation that the 1990s gave the 1960s, Martin Creed’s 1998 Work Number 200, Half the Air in Given Space is a poignant example of a wider trend in minimal and conceptual techniques — once the instruments of institutional critique were reinvented as part of a personal creative inquiry. Creed’s demarcation of half the given air in a space, by filling half a space with white balloons, has more to do with finding simple solutions to the problem of making art than with breaking-down implicit institutional codes of silence.

Both the inflatable and the ‘aeriform’ have specific relations to the ways in which we fabricate and define our habitation. The uses and definitions of air have appeared in aesthetics in conjunction with the wider social, political and technical conditions under which life takes place. By looking at the aesthetic employment of air as a medium, we can view these conditions as an archaeologist examines layers of soil during a dig.

1. Calvin Tomkinson, Duchamp: A Biography, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 1996, p 408.
2. The Zeppelin was more advanced technologically than the aeroplane, but ceased operations in the 1930s , except for uses in scientific research.
3. Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropious and Ise Gropious (eds.), Bauhaus 1919–1928, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1938 (reprinted in 1975), p 130.

Filed under Article Matthew Shannon