Local Arts

Exhibition: Stop taking air for granted – or else

Gallery visitors interact with Jed Berk’s Blubber Bots at the opening of “Keeping Watch on Air.”
Gallery visitors interact with Jed Berk’s Blubber Bots at the opening of “Keeping Watch on Air.” Danny Tulledge

We often take our air and trees for granted. But in a rapidly changing city such as Charlotte, they are vulnerable. “Keeping Watch on Air” aims at making us mindful of these interconnected life essentials.

The exhibition, at UNCC’s Center City, is the final installment of “Keeping Watch,” a three-year multidisciplinary effort that brings together community, institutional and corporate partners to enlighten Charlotteans about pressing environmental concerns.

(The first two were “Keeping Watch on Plastics” and “Keeping Watch on Water.”)

Visual art is a huge part of this initiative.

This year’s highlight is “Particle Falls,” a multi-story projection on the Center City Building exterior. The work of University of New Mexico artist/scientist Andrea Polli, it has been presented internationally since 2010. On view since mid-March, it dazzles, whether or not passersby know what it’s about; but once they do, they find it eye-opening and sobering.

“Particle Falls” makes the invisible visible. It takes data from a nephelometer (a device that measures nearby particle pollution) and renders it, via software Polli designed, as a vivid, real-time visualization that is updated every 15 seconds.

The projection resembles a waterfall of light. When air quality is good, there is only a cascade of blue. If there is some degree of pollution, white sparkles appear. When air quality is poor, such as when the nephelometer picks up exhaust from a passing diesel truck, the waterfall becomes a firefall.

“Particle Falls” is visible from dusk to dawn. During the day you can view a small version of it in Center City’s Projective Eye Gallery.

Intentionally or not, “Particle Falls” is highly symbolic of our state of denial. There are the obvious extremes of the idyllic waterfall and the chaotic firefall. But the middle ground – the pollution we accept or ignore because it allows us to enjoy such indulgences as single-occupancy cars – is enticingly pretty.

At Projective Eye Gallery, an exhibition of work by regional, national and international artists complements “Particle Falls.”

Gallery visitors can interact with “Blubber Bots,” Jed Berk’s small robotic blimps, at designated times; otherwise, they are docked at the end of the gallery, where they bob gently in the air. Highly responsive to light, people and air currents, they can be playful or menacing. Although their link to the show’s theme seems tenuous, they are among the most engaging works here, with their blending of art, technology, interactivity and humor.

Three artists address various challenges in the lives of trees.

“Memory,” a tree constructed from lumber mill detritus, occupies both the gallery and part of the lobby stairway. The work of Charlie Brouwer, it reflects both yearning and anger, with its evocation of a treehouse and references to clear-cutting.

Linda Foard Roberts’ “Spared,” a multi-panel photo of a majestic tree with a ribbon tied around it, is filled with hope. The ribbon is likely a signal for developers not to remove the tree, but it also transforms the tree into a gift.

Robert Wiens’s watercolors of rotting logs depict trees left in peace and at their natural endpoint, providing sustenance to insects and other plants. Photorealistic from a distance, they are painterly and energetic up close.

“Particle Matter,” by Kristin Rothrock, fills the building’s window gallery. These woodcuts on Japanese paper seem decorative, but they depict toxins. The prints are circular, as if viewed under a microscope.

The gallery’s showstopper is Berndnaut Smilde’s “Nimbus Dumont.” Smilde creates clouds in building interiors and then photographs them. His images are often printed on 4-by-5-foot aluminum sheets, but at Projective Eye, “Nimbus Dumont” is printed on wallpaper and is nearly 10 by 14 feet. The effect is startling, combining the wonder of an indoor cloud (which appears to be an element of nature trying to reclaim its territory) and the strangeness of a portal to a nonexistent space.

Unlike previous “Keeping Watch” exhibitions, which were explicit in their mission to educate, this show is a collection of observations and musings. While it has moments that teach and inform, it also is by turns thoughtful, celebratory and even funny.

‘Keeping Watch on Air’

When: “Particle Falls,” co-sponsored by Clean Air Carolina and UNCC College of Arts + Architecture, runs through April 23; the larger “Keeping Watch on Air” runs through May 28.

Where: Projective Eye Gallery, UNCC Center City.

Details: 704-687-0833; www.particlefallsclt.org and Keepingwatch.org.