Contemporary Reactions: “Hold Your Breath”

Not only is the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art a wonderful place to visit while traveling to Salt Lake City, but it is also a great place for locals to immerse themselves in an open, calming, and expressive space to escape from bustle of city life. Westminster College senior Joey Johnston enjoys breaking away from his schoolwork to tour through the museum’s shifting exhibits. As Johnston continues working toward his English degree, he recognizes UMOCA as a place where he can break away from the stressors of modern life, find inspiration in the artists’ works, and regain motivation for his own studies and artistic ventures.

On his most recent visit to UMOCA, Johnston became enamored with Kate Ericson & Mel Ziegler, and Mel Ziegler’s exhibition, Grandma’s Cupboard. One of the pieces that stood out most to Johnston was Ziegler’s installation, titled “Hold Your Breath.” For this piece, Ziegler took air from eight different locations that are associated with death in the state of Texas. Then, they enlisted the help of a balloon artist (who in this case, was UMOCA’s Executive Director, Kristian Anderson) to use the compressed air to fill up multicolored latex balloons and tied them up into different polygonal shapes and hats, which twist and stretch along the walls.  As these dozen or so balloons surround the viewer, the large, blue compressor sits in the center of the piece, humming as it lets out air with its listed locations painted in stark white in the center of the machine.

Johnston’s initial response to the piece was to focus on its visual and compositional qualities, perceiving the cold, industrial gauntness of the air compressor juxtaposed against the innocent and childlike yet splayed and transient nature of the colorful balloons. The physical simultaneity of these items’ presence, for Johnston, created dark irony by relating these childlike and industrial features together under the blanketing theme of death. While exploring the space, one constant on Johnston’s mind was how ethereal the piece felt as it explored concepts of death and reminded us that we consume air to live: “The shapes of the hallowed air take place in this latex environment, creating a physical and sensory manifestation of death.”

Air becomes an important recognizing factor of any place or locale. When that air is taken and moved into a new place where the air doesn’t belong, the environment changes, even if it is in an imperceptible way. For Johnston, the piece felt elegiac and mournful with the death-ridden air being let out into the gallery space from the compressor and balloons. Additionally, the idea of breathing that so-called “death air” was eerily jarring to him.


As a whole, Johnston said, Ericson and Ziegler’s work is interesting in the way that it treats American history, heritage, and culture with both searing criticism and a sort of proud sentimentalism. Johnston wondered if this tensional relationship was due to Ericson and Ziegler’s feelings towards Americana, or rather a statement on the general attitude of American citizenship.  Either way, it made Johnston wonder about his status as an American.


Written and Photographed by Kevin Lucey
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