Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

Air as a Means of Art: Claire Grace on the Capacity of Vacant Space

Claire Grace addressed the Boston College Art, Art History, and Film Departments on Monday evening virtually to discuss the many ways in which air is not truly empty space, but rather a canvas on which one can pursue art, a means of violence, as well as a vehicle through which diseases, such as the current novel coronavirus, can spread throughout humanity. 

Grace, an esteemed professor at Wesleyan University, teaches primarily courses in contemporary and American art. She offered a unique perspective to the Boston College atmosphere and shared her immense insights into the ways in which air intersects with societal phenomenon and injustice as well as art.

In the opening of her talk, Grace shared historical context regarding the use of air as a means of control, violence, and oppression. 

She used examples such as teargas, stating that it is not a legal weapon in war, however it can be used on domestic soil to disperse large groups participating in demonstrations and protests, many of which motivated by social justice reform and civil rights movements.

Grace then went on to discuss air’s role in wars, specifically the manipulation of air to harm opposing forces. 

For example, air was used to spread diseases across the globe and weaken an opponent's ability to defend themselves and their country. Air was also used to destroy homes, villages, and communities as a whole, depleting both the plants and environment, as well individual’s ability to protect themselves from the war that encompassed their lives.

The talk then shifted from the historical context and use of air throughout multiple generations and eras, to discussion of the way air was also used to comment on these historical occurrences and draw attention to the injustices present in and represented through air. 

Grace introduces a famous artist named Judy Chicago, who is notorious for utilizing air, space, and colors to create art and draw attention to the history of air use. 

“The colors of some of Chicago’s earliest atmospheres coincide with the coding system used to mark the barrels of tactical use, herbicides, and defoliant air deployed by the U.S. military in SouthEast Asia.” 

Grace exposes the ways in which Chicago, as well as other artists who utilize air in their works, can draw attention to the past uses of the atmosphere and often, the ways in which it was used to oppress large groups of people. 

She adds, “The aim, Chicago wrote in her biography, was ‘to transform and soften i.e. feminize the environment.’”

Grace continues on by explaining her plans to research the environmental implications of these forms of art, as Chicago utilizes large open areas and colorful paints and gases to create her infamous pieces.

The final portion of the lecture included Grace’s analysis of Anicka Yi’s art exhibition titled “Art is an Enigma Wrapped in an Ant Farm.” This work includes three canisters that omit a small amount of gas continuously, placing an odor in the air that viewers are tasked with deciphering and understanding. 

Yi, Grace shares, uses air as well as the ingredients in the canister to comment on oppression of immigrant people and the ways in which the United States denies humans a safe space to call home through the manipulation of air.

Overall, Grace used her platform here at Boston College to spread her knowledge and expand awareness of the pivotal role air plays in social justice, cruelty, and power. Air, Grace shares, can also be used to explain and understand these ideas through art.