Air is invisible. We think of it, in Lisa Rochon’s words, as “A giant void. Nothingness.” Yet looks can be deceiving. The invisibility of air belies its volatile complexity, its richness, its density. Cut with traces of everything, air is the transparent solvent of the world.
What then can be rendered beyond the void? Robert Kirkbride imagines that Old Master of the vanishing heaven, Piero della Francesca, as a hyperaware analyst of air’s disappearing act. In pursuing the air he becomes “an accountant of dust, cleverly charting the universal flow of particles with instruments and stratagems, tracing their transparent bodies in delicate geometries; colliding, dispersing, coalescing, vanishing.” If these vanishing points mark the limits of our perception, Piero’s painted skies hint at a plenitude beyond, blending upwards from white and rose to heavenly blue and black.
Where do we see air? Where we encounter its force. The air ripples grass, scuds clouds, and crashes breakers against the shore. In all this the air itself is a thing inferred. It is the volume of inflatable space— balloons, tires, lungs, Styrofoam—and the odd, sometimes terrible, magic of air’s riders—flying squirrels, volcanic ash, dandelion seeds, Predator drones. Somewhere between a mote of dust and a Saharan storm we can intuit air’s texture and grasp its vastness (though at times it is air that grips us in a smoggy inversion of our own airborne contributions). Air suspends, escapes, pressurizes, equalizes.
How can we know our air? Cynthia Lin’s obsessive silverpoint meditations on the falling dust in her New York studio offer us one way to track air’s secret maneuvers: she redefines this floating nuisance by strategically deploying an early-Renaissance drawing technique, and the result is a complete dramatic universe. David Ross also draws our eye to the unseen narratives of air. His photographs capture the spectral vapors rising from the HVAC systems of art institutions while suggesting an even more minute register: the “microscopic particles” of the artworks stored within that are “breathed out of galleries.”
These whirling works recall an older air, perfumed with the odors of many characters: benevolent fragrance, angry fume, comic wind, and tragic exhalation. “Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries,” writes Rebecca Williamson, “our relationship with air began to change in response to new technologies and measuring tools. All those airs and winds with their distinct characters began to merge into one air, a unified substance.” Today we circulate the homogeneity of regulated modern air. Perhaps nothing so vividly illustrates air’s transition from the marvelous to the regular as the fate of the fabulous balloons described by Rochon: “Eighteenth-century inventors sent exquisitely colored flying contraptions into the sky—the first Montgolfier hot air balloon, decorated like an Easter egg with gold medallions highlighted with angelic faces, fleurs-de-lys and eagles, was released to rise over Paris on 21 November 1783.” Just five months later, on 23 April 1784, the Paris police promulgated the first-ever aeronautical legislation, and two days after that an official permit was needed to fly anywhere in France.
Today, in an attempt to thwart the power of the winds to govern our fates, we regulate every legally conceivable dimension of air: the content and frequencies of radiowaves, the mass and height of building envelopes, and the movement of crafts through airspace, not to mention the ecology of airborne emissions. We have colonized the air with spatial and social delimitations. But don’t be fooled: air itself is always on the move. Air regenerates and reacts to us, and, perhaps even more cunningly, makes us react to ourselves. This is what drives Bhawani Venkataraman’s call for acomprehensive regulatory approach that acknowledges the complex dynamics of modern air: “We need to consider the atmosphere as belonging to the category of ‘commons,’ resources that are held collectively and benefit all, and develop regulations that focus not just on one class of anthropogenic contributions to the atmosphere, but on all such effects.” And Javier Arbona finds here, in the manifold of airs, a freshening breeze of human possibility: “The air around us is responsive to our collective human actions. It can be changed, gathered, relocated, and molded to inspire new forms of dwelling, sociability, and community.”
We need to understand that we cannot go on using the air as a mere sump for industrial ejecta, as the accidental laboratory for unwitting geoformation, or as the valueless remainder of the calculus of economic externalities. We need not wax sentimental for a lost sylvan past – even the agricultural age was likely to have sped up the convection of human energy to the air. With the prospect of climate change, we are confronted with the idea that we have altered the air fundamentally and perhaps irreversibly. So now is the time to look at air anew, for even as it changes, it is still the one element through which we might elevate ourselves, ascending to new heights by learning to live in its churning, living, billowing winds.
Image: Warren Faidley