Art That Makes A Difference

Beijing air quality, December 2011. Flickr.com

Beijing air quality, December 2011. Flickr.com

Betsy Brunner, Department of Communication

Every winter we are repeatedly enveloped in a pool of smog that threatens our health and well-being. The problem has not gone away.

This winter, the University of Utah wants to try something different. In an effort to raise awareness and promote change—in behavior, policies, and the way we think about air quality issues—we are turning to art. Art has long been an important component in environmental movements (think Ansel Adams or Carleton Watkins), and we think it can help us here and now in Salt Lake City. Art has the unique ability to move us in a way beyond words and to imagine what could be. Unlike words, we digest multiple aspects of an image simultaneously, which allows for information to be combined and consumed in new ways.

Provided by Betsy Brunner.

Provided by Betsy Brunner.

This is why we are bringing artists from Beijing, our sister city in smog, to help us imagine new ways of imaging air pollution. Beijing residents have used images as ammunition to demand change, and their government has responded by investing in green energy, expanding public transit, and coming up with creative measures to limit driving in an effort to improve air quality. We here in Salt Lake City also must make important changes in order to preserve our environment. The artists will create a “Living Gallery” in Gittins Gallery in the Art Building, 375 S 1530 E, from Feb. 3-20 to showcase art and air-quality activism.

Representatives from the Department of Communication selected five artists because their work addresses different aspects of air pollution, with a focus on promoting more sustainable measures:

Li Gang uses his art to expose the environmental and social repercussions of Beijing’s tireless expansion. His work seeks “to express the condition of people living amidst the tremendous change in contemporary life: over-stimulation, the uncertainty of the future, inter-personal conflict, and the conflicts between man and himself, the soul and the physical body, man and his environment, and the material and the spiritual.”

Huang Xu’s artwork also evidences his struggle with the rapid industrialization of his country and the environmental havoc it wreaks on his environment. His work looks to the past as a way of negotiating the present and the future and asks viewers to reflect on how development can become more sustainable.

Dai Dandan’s most recent work plays off of Duchampian ready-mades to critique contemporary Chinese culture’s turn to consumerism. By taking objects associated with China’s past and embellishing them with flashy “bling” including rhinestones, she draws attention to how the demand for high-end consumer goods is impacting the culture as well as the environment. Dai’s work calls for a re-evaluation of the changing societal values of her country.

Mei Mei Chang, who is from Taiwan, uses art to capture the collisions between construction and demolition, between the gains and losses of expansion, and between the constant disruption and structuring of urban spaces. As her work moves off the canvas and onto the walls of the gallery, we witness what happens as expansion pushes us to the brink of environmental collapse.

Matthew Niederhauser’s work documents China’s expansion from hutongs (traditional Chinese neighborhoods) to high rises. As China develops at this rapid pace, Matthew’s work questions whether we should be considering these changes as development or devastation. Hi work has offered audiences a new way of understanding China.

Provided by Betsy Brunner.

Provided by Betsy Brunner.

These artists can help and so can you. Please stop by the Gittins Gallery from Feb. 3-Feb. 20 to talk with the artists and fellow activists and make art that makes a difference. Or, if you want to hear more about the project and ask the artists questions, you can join us for our roundtable discussion on Monday, Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 South Campus Drive. All are welcome to join!

Air pollution is a growing problem that plagues us all. As one protestor’s sign reads: “If you breathe, it’s your problem, too!” Please join us and be part of the solution to this growing problem. To learn more, visit beijing-slc.web.utah.edu.

This project was made possible by a grant for the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF). Initial applications for the next grant cycle are due Feb. 21. Email your UNID to SCIF Coordinator Rachel Sanders to enroll in the Canvas application platform.

Betsy Brunner is a doctoral candidate in the University of Utah Department of Communication.

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