As contemporary life suffocates, artists remind us how to breathe

In moments of anxiety or meditation we concentrate on our breath to find balance. A group of artists show that finding this focus can help our inner health and allow us to become better practitioners.
As contemporary life suffocates, artists remind us how to breathe

Julie Rrap, Blow Back #16, 2018 (detail), digital print and hand-ground glass. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Slowing down and being present in the moment is one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary society.

Curator Rilka Oakley believes that committing to an annual digital detox is not enough. Rather, we need to focus on the small details, allowing our daily rituals to ward off the anxieties that percolate within us.

‘For practicing artists the idea of ritual is central for them; they have their process in the studio – the way they work, slow down and consider a series of moves,’ said Oakley. ‘In a nutshell, rituals make us slow down.’


Oakley has curated the exhibition with every breath for Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, a show of 15 artists who, through their work, encourage us to be still, breathe, reflect and listen. Most importantly, they ask us to take our time.

Oakley confessed that she is a ‘quick exhibition viewer’, whizzing through and returning to works that catch her eye. Perhaps it has something to do with the way contemporary society has encouraged us to skim and scan?

Her aim with this exhibition is to remind people of the joy of stopping and slowing down. ‘I am often looking at themes that have a human connection, to ask “How can we go a bit deeper and remain mentally well in today's world?”

Oakley warned that many of our daily rituals have now become conjoined with our social media practices. ‘We are going through this massive movement of decluttering and wellness, but then we get on Facebook to read reflections on the day and read it in two seconds with little reflection – it’s a real contradiction,’ she said.  

A poetic work by Pamela Pirovic is a great reminder of how to recalibrate and find joy in the moment. In this video diptych the artist undresses her frail grandmother, while in the second screen her grandmother undresses her.

‘Whether making food, washing or dressing we perform multiple ordinary actions on any given day. When we pay attention to these actions we become aware of that moment.’ Oakley said.

Re-learning how to breathe

Artists have long examined breath in their art as a way of centering themselves as human beings.

‘Breath is something we do without thinking about it. One of the fundamentals of meditation is to listen to one’s own breath – to hear and feel its physicality,’ said Oakley. ‘And when someone is panicking they are told to slow down, to “breathe naturally”. We also talk about cycles from our first breath to our last.’

She has used breath as an encouragement to slow down. It is beautifully captured in Julie Rrap’s suite of photographs, Blow Back 2018 (pictured top) where the artist has etched the breath of 33 female artists, friends and contemporaries on the frame’s glass.  

In another work, WeiZen Ho will suspend a large metal dress sculpture from the gallery, within which are bellows that breathe – their action amplified audibly.  While Rachael Wenona Guy and Leonie Van Eyk present a poetry project that plays with sound and gesture to encourage focus on the small details.  

Rachael Wenona Guy & Leonie Van Eyk, This House, My body - poetspeak (still) 2018, digital film; image supplied.

In This House; My Body (2018), 15 poets were recorded while reciting their poems, and were then filmed as they listened back to their own readings. What we see are their re-actions in small details – knotted hands, an emotive expression.

Similarly, Honi Ryan’s work focuses on our own bodily response to ritual and our ability to focus. Ryan will present a video documentation of a walking meditation she did during a visit to Pakistan in 2016, and part of a suite of instructional pieces – what she calls social sculptures – that ask us, for example, to “walk with a friend for an hour and remain silent”.

With her practice focused on mindfulness, as part of with every breath Ryan will host a silent dinner in the gallery on 23 August, where participants will explore the rituals around eating a three-course meal without speaking or using their phones.

A key part of the exhibition has involved working with local Aboriginal arts practitioners and Katoomba High School students to pass on learnings about honing one’s observations outside of their digital world; to embrace the ritual of storytelling and to re-find the ritual of just “hanging out”. 

Budyarimaba - Make Good Future, 2019, music video still; image supplied.

A participating student said of the music video projection, Budyarimaba - Make Good Future 2019: ‘Being involved in the music/dance video was a wonderful opportunity to step away from our studies, take a breath, and embrace the natural environment of Birriban (the High School’s outdoor bush classroom) and our cultural background.’

with every breath is an exhibition that cuts through the static and allows us to physically feel the moment – one breath at a time.

with every breath is showing at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery from 6 July – 25 August 2019. Visit

Participating artists: Sarah Breen Lovett, Cherine Fahd, Karen Golland, Anne Graham, Rachael Wenona Guy & Leonie Van Eyk, WeiZen Ho, Rachel Peachey & Paul Mosig, Pamela Pirovic, Julie Rrap, Honi Ryan, Abi Tariq, Marty Walker, Hayley West and Katoomba High School Students .

No image supplied

Gina Fairley

Tuesday 25 June, 2019

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

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