Breathing Life into: Plants, Archives
and People in Responsive Space

Responsive Space
Modern Art Oxford, Oxford
02.10.20 – 17.01.21

Spirited, spires; respire, aspire, transpire. Loose threads link the disparate elements of Modern Art Oxford’s Responsive Space, an assortment of community arts projects located both within a single gallery, and available online. The miscellaneous collection is framed by rectilinear collages mounted on opposing walls; the viewer, it seems, is invited to draw the red tape between the two. What results is a highly contemporary reflection on natural and virtual worlds, and how 2020 has compelled many of us to reorient our position within them.

The first project, Activating our Archives, is composed of a wall of photographs that explore image-making and collective work in lockdown, in addition to a monitor displaying a Zoom recording of the group’s activity. By contrast, at the far end of the gallery, Breathworks gathers critical and creative approaches to breathing, charted in text boxes and accompanying images. These two projects bookend the gallery, establishing a bricolage space akin to a digital display, with various ‘windows’ open. In the space between, we encounter the work of asylum seekers and refugees in Oxford, as well as the overspill from an exhibition on Mariana Castillo Deball. There is a kind of cut-and-paste aesthetic, a sense of the accelerated integration of virtual spaces into our lives over the past year, which directs my understanding of the layout. These assorted elements are the multifaceted possibilities – and effects – of lockdown.

The images that make up Activating our Archives are rediscovered, reclaimed, or else responsive to unprecedented times. Amanda Denny, for instance, recovered discarded photographs from a ‘Covid Clearout Skip’, investing them with new life. The photographs document not only her daily lockdown walk, but also how such excursions fostered fleeting and significant interactions with those whose paths she crossed. Among the archives, family photographs feature prominently. For many, nostalgia has proved a perennial feature of 2020; one such instance is visible in Francesco Pennacchio’s Unlike Flowers, She Won’t Come Back with Spring. In this deeply personal history, Pennacchio places his mother’s photograph – newly excavated from a lifelong hiding place – alongside a Polaroid of daffodils. Side by side, the images are not dissimilar, the dappled light of the daffodils resembling the mother’s smile. Here, photographs are like pressed flowers, a thing preserved after the life is gone. As we put our lives on pause, perhaps, we were borne back into the past.

Etain O’Carroll also contributes a family portrait, a black and white snapshot depicting three young children and their parents gathered on a mattress, the uneven light blending the figures together. In this piece, O’Carroll considers whether photographs allow us to remember things as they are, to what extent any photo is candid or contrived. There’s a light experiment I have always been fascinated by, in which the light behaves differently when recorded. O’Carroll ponders on something similar, when she asks: How is a moment transformed by being immortalised? How does the moment change, if we already conceive of it in terms of how it will be remembered?

As many of us have revisited our photographic archives in isolation and spent increasing periods of time viewing ourselves through computer cameras, O’Carroll’s work asks pressing questions. How do we think of the present? What is the nature of an ‘event’? How do we perform for the camera? The work’s title, Thrown Together, might describe the exhibition as a whole. Contemporary life has become increasingly uncontrollable. Overseen by the Zoom room, Activating our Archives presents a kind of drag-and-drop spontaneity to the newly virtual community space.

Before moving to Breathworks, I lingered on Bharat Patel’s Bridge of Sighs by the River, which engages most directly with electronic culture. Patel Photoshops the skyway over Oxford’s New College Lane into new surroundings, which feature snow and a number of trees, as well as a body of water in which a cyclist is suspended. Oxford is famously a kind of dreamscape, an almost surreal overlap of old and new in the ‘city of dreaming spires’, which spawned Lewis Carroll’s wonderland. Patel’s distortion of such an iconic landmark speaks to a new unsettling of our relationship to both digital and material spaces. The outside world has become alien, perhaps, a landscape garnering a different attention on our one hour of daily exercise; we are learning to recognise ourselves in less tangible spaces.

Breathworks is an entirely different computer window. Displaying extracts and visuals related to religious practices, spiritual healing, medical science and pollution, this portion of Responsive Space meditates on the meaning of breath and air. It is utterly arbitrary that, in my encounter with the space, the Breathworks digital project provided the immediate follow-up to Patel’s augmented reality. That Patel’s ‘bridge’ bridged the gap only attests to the logic of overflow that governs the space; the sound of breathing plays rhythmically through speakers around the gallery, audible as the viewer ponders Patel’s ‘sighs’.

Inspire, aspire, conspire: to breathe life into, to pant with anticipation, to breathe together. Ideas of breath are built into the most fundamental and most imaginative forms of human life. Breath asks us to question the nature of humanity: as we inhale and exhale, we test the capacity of our bodies, the limits of the human. But in the gallery, space breathes, and communities breathe together, unsettling the perceived wholeness of the body. The Breathworks project predates the pandemic, but in the light of recent events, it has certainly taken on a new significance.

As one Breathworks extract has it, oxygen is ‘bacterial excrement’; in another, ‘marine microbes form the lungs of the earth’, and indeed ‘our worlds will only become liveable once we learn how to conspire with plants’. Where some corners of the Breathworks mind map insist on breath as our assertion of self-presence, an absolute certainty and centredness in our own bodies, here, breath is somehow post-human. Breath is the non-existence of self, the confirmation of our symbiosis with microbial life forms. In breathing we are reminded that our bodies offer a soup of microorganisms, not distinct from, but entangled with, the world. Breathworks bleeds over into the wider space, its extracts like units working for the whole; we are composed of smaller parts, and we make up a larger body.

From masks to airless rooms, suffocation in the murder of George Floyd, breathlessness has taken on particular resonance this year. More than ever, we are aware of breath as contagion, as biochemical warfare. But as the exhibition highlights, minority communities have long been cognisant of air quality as politically charged. As an extract from Jane Macnaughton’s text summarises, ‘Breathless people are among the most marginalised in Western societies and one reason for this is that breathlessness disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged communities.’ Women, people of colour and poor people are most vulnerable to respiratory afflictions, and breath has been understood in terms of colonial and patriarchal oppression, as well as environmental violence. In Breathworks, buzzwords, infographics and soundbites map out a stream of information, challenging us to do our research.

Like Activating our Archives, Breathworks also incorporates a screen. Here, a projection exhibits creative responses to breath. It is from this film that visceral sounds emanate – groans, pants, snores, words. On the screen, elemental forces meet with artificial technologies. Depictions of trees and of people blowing into plant life contrast with a head obscured by masks and headphones, and the flash of an iPhone camera. Electronic gasps and virtually rendered faces ask us how expansive our lung capacity might be – how far we might share breath with others, machinic or otherwise.

And then there’s the activity table. Bordered by sand in sedimentary layers, the table asks what pasts – and indeed what presents – we can unearth, and how the viewer participates in meaning-making. Those visiting Modern Art Oxford will navigate by the one-way system and come to Responsive Space via the Deball exhibition, thus newly equipped with Deball’s decolonising ideals. Following on from Deball, who emphasises the significance of museum curation in shaping public knowledge, Responsive Space embraces intersection, encounter and combination as ways of knowing. These collectives rethink ‘human’ and ‘life’, and what it means to record, distort or rethink these fundamentals of self.

Responsive Space captures both the digital expansions and existential challenges which have characterised the past year. Loss, atemporality, contingency and the polluting potential of the body are articulated via an aesthetic reminiscent of internet culture, and the hold of digital interfaces on our imagination. Viewers can ( quite literally ) only approach the work as the current health crisis permits, online or through the adjoining gallery, and here we engage with the unique consequences of an unprecedented year. Seeking out signs of life in unusual places, Responsive Space considers the diverse possibilities for community in 2020.




展览的首个作品是《激活档案》( Activating our Archives ),它包括一面照片墙,探索着封闭状态下图像的生成制作和集体工作;还有一个显示器,记录了该艺术组织举行活动的Zoom会议。相比之下,在展厅的另一端,《呼吸工作》( Breathworks )则收集了呼吸行为的关键和创造性方法,并利用文本框和附带的图片做记录。这两个项目将展览夹在中间,建立了一个类似于数字展示的拼贴空间,其中有各种打开的“窗户”。而在展览的中间地带,我们看到了于牛津本地寻求庇护的难民的作品,以及马利亚纳·卡斯蒂洛·德巴尔( Mariana Castillo Deball )的展览留下的一些剩余。剪切粘贴的审美顿时袭来,一种虚拟空间在过去的一年当中加速融入了我们生活的感觉,这引导了我对展览布局的理解。这些不同的元素是封锁状态下能够达到的多种可能性和结果。

构成《激活档案》的那些图像被重新发现、回收,或者开始呼应不可预测的时代。例如,阿曼达·丹尼( Amanda Denny )从一个“COVID隔离基地”找到了被丢弃的照片,让它们获得了新的生命。这些照片不仅记录了她每天在隔离期间的散步,还记录了这种短期禁闭如何促进了她与那些遇到她的人短暂而重要的互动。这些档案中,家庭照片尤为突出。对许多人来说,伤怀已被证明是2020年的一个永续的特征。此类情形可以在弗朗西斯科·彭纳契奥( Francesco Pennachio )的《不似花,她不会随春天回来》( Unlike Flowers, She Won’t Come Back with the Spring )中看到。在作品宣泄的深刻的个人历史中,彭纳契奥将他母亲的照片—从一个遍寻不见的隐秘角落重新找到的—放在一张水仙花的宝丽来相片旁边。并置的照片没有什么不同,水仙花瓣上斑驳的光影很像母亲的微笑。在这里,照片就像被压过的干花,是生命消逝后得以保存下来的东西。当生活暂停,也许,我们会被带回到过去。

埃恩泰·奥卡罗( Etain O ‘Carroll )也贡献了一张全家福,这是一张黑白快照,三个年幼的孩子和他们的父母坐在同一张床垫上,不均匀的光线将所有人物混合在一起。奥卡罗试图思考的问题是照片能否让我们记住事物本来的样子,以及,照片在多大程度上可以算作真实还是虚构?我一直对一个光学实验很感兴趣,这个实验中,光线在被记录时会产生不同的变化。当艺术家思考类似的问题时,她问道:一个时刻是如何通过被凝固而被改变的?如果我们已经从记忆的角度理解和铭刻了它,那么这个时刻又是如何被改变的呢?

当我们中的许多人孤立地重新审视自己的照片档案,并花费越来越多的时间通过电脑摄像头凝视自己时,奥卡罗的作品提出了紧迫的问题:我们如何面对此刻?“事件”的本质是什么?我们如何在镜头前表现?作品《凑成一堆》( Thrown Together )的标题可以描述整个展览。当代生活变得越来越难以控制。在Zoom的监督下,《激活档案》呈现了一种在新兴的虚拟社区空间里拖放鼠标式的自发性。

看到《呼吸工作》之前,我流连于巴雷特·帕特尔( Bharet Patel )的《叹息之桥》( Bridge of Sighs by the River ),这里最直接地融入了电子文化。帕特尔将牛津大学新学院巷的空中通道PS成了新的环境,下着雪,许多树,还有一个骑自行车的人悬浮在水中。牛津是梦幻之地,在这座“梦幻塔尖之城”中,新的事物和旧的事物近乎超现实地彼此交叠,刘易斯·卡罗尔( Lewis Carroll )的仙境也因此而得名。帕特尔对这一标志性建筑的扭曲反映了我们在与数字空间和材料空间的关系中所显露的新的不安。外面的世界已然变得陌生,也许,在我们每天一个小时的锻炼时间内,不同的风景引起了我们不同的关注;我们正在学习在一个不那么切实有形的空间中重新认识自己。




从口罩到不透气的房间,如同乔治·弗洛伊德( George Floyd )被谋杀前所经历的窒息,无法呼吸的感觉在今年引起了特别的共鸣。我们比以往任何时候都更能意识到呼吸是传染病,是生化战争。但正如这次展览所强调的,少数族裔社群长期以来一直认为空气质量带有政治色彩。简·麦克诺顿(Jane macnaughton)总结道:“在西方社会,最喘不过气的人是最边缘的群体,原因之一在于最弱势的群体受到的影响更大。”妇女、有色人种和穷人最容易患上呼吸道疾病,而呼吸则一直被归纳在殖民、父权压迫以及环境暴力的议题之下被加以理解。在《呼吸工作》中,流行语、信息图表和声音片段绘制出一连串的信息,挑战我们去做相应的研究。