Health and sustainable development

Air pollution, climate and health in the minds of artists

"Smog Tasting" whips up meringues inside a “smog chamber” in order to simulate air quality condition from different locations. The installation was showcased at Musée de l'Homme during COP21.
Arya Degenhardt

The average adult takes between 17 000 and 30 000 breaths a day without giving it much thought. Yet, the quality of air we breathe impacts our health in multiple ways, ways that can be very sudden and acute –such as an asthma attack during an air pollution peak— or else very subtle, long-term and unseen. The exhibition “BREATHE” explores how air pollution and linked climate issues are addressed in the work of contemporary artists and designers.

The first BREATHE exhibit was organized on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly at the Geneva headquarters of the World Meteorological Organization. Following this event it was hosted at the WHO Library and then COP21 in Paris at the Cities & Regions Pavilion in cooperation with Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) and at Musée de l’Homme.

The artworks convey the vulnerability experienced by many people faced with constant air pollution exposures, both in cities and homes. The works also make the “invisible” more visible, using strong images, sensory devices, symbols, and other senses, such as taste, to capture the often unseen impacts of air and climate pollutants in tangible ways that evoke emotions.

The pieces range from “smog meringues” that simulate air quality conditions from different locations, to tailpipe gadgets that turn from green to red when polluted exhaust is expelled.

A 3D poster “Healthy by Design” illustrates a low-carbon, clean air city opposite a high-emissions, polluted urban landscape. The piece, designed by renowned artist Kurt Wenner, depicts the stark choices we face in designing healthier cities. It draws attention to the multiple causes of urban air pollution on the one hand, and the artist’s interpretation of a healthy and green city on the other.

An opportunity to reflect

“These exhibits provide an opportunity to reflect on the profound impact air pollution has on our health, and how artists perceive and present the problem,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health (PHE) at WHO headquarters.

“We are delighted to be invited to display works of art from many parts of the world that provoke us to step back and be mindful of our health, our environment and the legacy that we are creating for ourselves and the next generation,’ said Gabriel Harp, one of the curators from CoClimate, the group of artists that organized the exhibit.

BREATHE was produced and curated by CoClimate, an artist-led think tank and strategic design studio whose mission is to build and portray essential questions about climate change.

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