Text by Kasper Nefer Olsen


Keep An Eye On The Air

From the exhibition THE MASSIVE VOID at Esbjerg Art Museum 2009,

by Kasper Nefer Olsen

Invisible and ubiquitous: this is all but the definition of God. It is only natural, therefore, that air should be an object of veneration, and it is true that the primitive history of air is marked by the association to everything that is good: life, soul, reason – these things were all originally synonomous with breath, and you can still tell from the sibilants in the ancient words for « soul » - Greek psyche, Latin spiritus, Hebrew nephesh, and even Danish sjæl – that they really refer to breath. To be alive, to think, to speak – in short: to be human – is to breath, to « air ».

It is remarkable, though, that the Danish word ånden = « breath » equally signifies (with only a slight change in pronounciation, known by linguists as the « glottal stop »: ånd'en) « the ghost ». This ambiguity is due to the fact that whereas breath (as air and nothing but) is essentially invisible, the soul (which, according to Aristotle, is « the form of the body ») is not necessarily so. Hence souls, detached from their original bodies, are still called « spirits ». In the Victorian crime novel, one used to hold a mirror close to the lips of the « lifeless body » found in the library, to check if it was really dead - or merely fainted once more. The mirror makes it possible to see the breath – much in the same way as, in those days, it made spirits appear. Being itself invisible, glass (this peculiar substance which is really an extremely viscous liquid) has a natural affinity to air and everything airy. Nevertheless, visibility implies a certain loss of purity – even in a moral sense. Another ambiguity appears: between air in the singular (meaning air) and airs in the plural (meaning « affected manner, pretentiousness »). This originates, of course, in French where air in the singular means « appearance » in expressions like: Il a l'air un peu triste, literally « He has the air a little sad » = « He is a little sad ». But whereas invisibility (as air and nothing but) cannot be faked, an appearance might be deceiving, that is: it might be covering something else – or even a void trying to appear as something. Thus, in French, prendre l'air - meaning, quite innocently, « take air = take a walk » - is not to be confounded with prendre des airs: « take airs = showing off ».

(It should be mentioned that since air might mean « song » as well (aria), the French might say: Il a l'air triste - et le chanson = « He looks sad - and the song as well », a witticism hard to translate).

This moral ambiguity suggests that there might even be something « wrong » about air. Invisible and ubiquitous: that's all very nice, but it isn't normal, is it? Air is a
« substance without properties » and hence unreliable, like the weather – another word which originally means « air », like the wind blowing anywhere and going nowhere. But the proliferation of appearances might eventually be turned into a virtue; thus, the Greek philosopher Anaximenes proposed, some 2500 years ago, to consider air as the element of all things and the different properties of things as so many transformations of air. In one of history's earliest experiments of physics, Anaximenes observed that if I breathe on my hand with my mouth wide open, the air feels hot; but if, by narrowing the lips, I create a thinner and more condensed stream of air, it feels cold on my skin. From this observation he deduced that hot and cold correspond to different degrees of aerial density – which is correct, although to modern science the correlation is exactly the opposite: the thinner the air, the colder (what Anaximenes observed, is explained by the fact that the more condensed stream of air increases evaporation from the skin, just like the waving of a fan would do).

At any rate, it seemed obvious that air might change into water and conversely. Water in the state of vapour is really invisible (and hence a kind of air) – which is fortunate, since otherwise visibility would be constantly low in most parts of the Earth. But breath might turn visible as a stain of moisture on the mirror – and vapour as clouds « floating » in the sky, which in times of Antiquity was considered some kind of superior ocean. Claiming air instead of water as the element of all things, was really nothing but a change in perspective: the world of Antiquity is either water separated by air - or air contained by water. Even in modern times, flying machines have been thought of as « airships », and their landing ground is indeed still called an « airport ». As the element of a second ocean above us, air would eventually be conceived as « carrier » of meteorological or astronomical phenomena. An idea all the more persuasive as it turned out that sound – or even light – could be described as « waves » in space. This certainly seemed to corroborate the ubiquity of air – at least of some sort of air, called « ether »: a hypothetical substance which still in the early 20th century was supposed to pervade celestial space (since otherwise it seemed impossible to explain the propagation of light). Today we know that the « waves » of light are nothing but a mathematical construction: there is no ondulating matter in space; space is a void, not merely empty, like the architectural surplus space called a loft (from the Danish luft « air »), but devoid of any kind of air. This means a final goodbye to the celestial ocean of Antiquity, but at the same time a cosmological relief: paradoxical as this might seem, modern man cannot but feel slightly suffocated at the mere thought of an ubiquitous « ether ». On most planets, therefore, there is no air, as we know it, - with the notable exception of Venus where there is far too much: an atmospheric pressure 90 times the one on Earth! It is possible that Venus presents us with a deplorable exemple of what is known as the « hothouse effect »: an excessive production of carbondioxide, covering the entire planet in eternal, impenetrable mist. On Venus the air is visible, rather than the ground (we cannot see the planet itself – only its atmosphere), - and this, to modern earthlings, seems rather like the end of the world: what were we to do, indeed, if we could no longer watch Earth from above? It it is true that we only acquired that ability some 50 years ago; but nonetheless the entire global order of present day seems completely dependent on unlimited satellite « coverage » of the Earth's surface.

Eventually, this makes air no less than a geopolitical liability – in case it should prove a hindrance to the technological exploitation of the sky. While these very words are being written (April 2010), the airspace over Northern Europe has been temporarily closed to civil aviation, – officially because of an invisible cloud of volcanic ashes at high altitude. Sure, it's been four months since we last had a mass psychosis: in those days, the invisible cloud was made of « Mexican swine flu ». Whether there really was something in the air, we shall never know. But air, now a carrier of unverifiable menaces, has obviously gained a political importance hitherto unknown: whoever holds the air over us, holds the world. Thus, our near future appears to be in the hand of meteorologists and climatologists whose decrees shall be obeyed instantly and without discussion by panic-stricken politicians. It will be a pure formality, then, to get rid of what's left of democracy. We already know the reason why: it shall be declared that the air in the voting booth can be hasardous to your health.

Kasper Nefer Olsen