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‘Breathing in China’

Submitted on Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Canadian and Chinese artists consider the timely topic of smog in a new exhibit curated by PhD candidate Yan Zhou

Waking up to grey skies and low visibility due to pollution isn’t something Canadians have had to worry about until recently. But what if your city was wrapped in menacing smog all the time?

The exhibit, Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and Environment, curated by Faculty of Information PhD candidate Yan Zhou, explores smog and the feeling of suffocation from not only an environmental point of view but also from cultural, political and social angles. Fifteen featured artists from Canada and China explore the issues using methods and materials, including drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and video.

Zhou, who is doing her PhD in Museum Studies, grew up in Xi’an, a large city and capital of Shaanxi Province in central China. She recalls that the once vivid mountains, trees, clouds and beautiful sky from her childhood were no longer visible in the thick yellow-grey air when she left for Canada in March 2009. Air pollution is the most pressing environmental health crisis in the world, according to the World Health Organization. It is responsible for more than 6.5 million deaths annually, the bulk of which – 70 percent – occur in the Asia-Pacific region, with about 2 million deaths in China alone.

Featured image: Zhang Xiao, Shanxi No.1, 2007, archival ink jet print, Courtesy of the artist.

Featured image: Zhang Xiao, Shanxi No.1, 2007, archival ink jet print, Courtesy of the artist.

“We started this project in 2017 when the smog problem was serious and affected people in most areas of China,” Zhou said at the exhibit launch at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. “There was a depressive mood among my friends and families in China due to the smog, the political and social uncertainties, and other things.

“In Canada, artists and friends talked about the climate crisis, the wars and migration, and many other uncertainties of the world.”

Zhou did her Master of Museum Studies from 2009 to 2011. On a work trip to China in 2010, where she visited 40 art institutions, she developed an interest in women’s status in China and contemporary women artists. Since then, she has curated several exhibits in both Canada and China, introducing many Canadian artists to China and vice-versa.

In 2017, Zhou started her PhD at the Faculty of Information. Her research focuses on Chinese art, collectives, art activism and art communities that are not well represented in Western art and the academic world.

“In 2016-17, when I met artists in China, they seemed to find it difficult to express and communicate due to the political situation. So, I thought about the opportunity of bringing in the Canadian artists to work together and help the Chinese artists to find a way to express themselves,” she said.

“The approach by both groups of artists is also very different. The Canadian artists reflected on pollution in a conceptual or abstract way, relating it to health or cultures in different parts of the world. However, the Chinese artists’ response to pollution and smog was much more direct about the political and social pressures they faced. So, the exhibit is more of an experimental project which brings together both these approaches to the same subject.”

As a result of the pandemic, a new section was added to the exhibit that explored the relationship between the pandemic, pollution and the climate crisis.

Breathing in China will be on display until December 31 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton