LIFE / CULTURE
Photo exhibition exposes London air pollution
Breathtaking art
Published: Jul 20, 2021 06:03 PM
Activists from the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion carry out a performance with 26 shoes, representing the people who die from air pollution in London each day, outside the Transport For London offices in Stratford in southeast London on August 31, 2020. Photo: AFP

Activists from the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion carry out a performance with 26 shoes, representing the people who die from air pollution in London each day, outside the Transport For London offices in Stratford in southeast London on August 31, 2020. Photo: AFP



An unconventional photography exhibition in London has turned toxic pollution into art to raise awareness about the British capital's persistent air-quality problems.

Visual artists and scientists have teamed up for the exhibition, entitled What On Earth, which explores the climate crisis through 26 artworks, running until Saturday.

Exhibits include ethereal images on delicate dark blue paper with splashes of white that evoke pristine oceans but actually show the contamination of London's air.

They were produced using air samples provided by scientists at Imperial College London.

The samples were then captured and printed using cyanotype, a traditional method of producing images from light that enables sunlight to reveal toxic particles.

The Crown Estate, which manages property owned by Queen Elizabeth II, gave The Koppel Project, the arts charity behind the show, a disused retail unit rent-free for a year in sought-after central London.

The deal was in exchange for establishing an artistic community and getting a discussion under way, said curator Ellen Taylor.

"The goal was to address social and political issues we see in the news to create a conversation," she said.

"I'm hoping this show can demonstrate how nature can be the subject of photography, using air pollution and sound to document how our environment is changing."

Pollution levels plummeted across the world in 2020 as people stayed at home during coronavirus lockdowns but have picked up as restrictions ease and more people are avoiding public transport.

Air pollution can create and exacerbate cardiovascular diseases and asthma and has been linked with cognitive diseases like dementia. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates it is responsible for 7 million premature deaths annually worldwide.

A June report found that more than 25 percent of UK schools were located in areas above the WHO's recommended air pollution levels.

One of the showcased artists Alice Cazenave used a glass plate to collect pollution in central London for several weeks.

The city has a long history of poor air quality, with its thick "pea soup" smog leading to major clean air legislation in the 1950s.

The city introduced a congestion charge in 2003, billing motorists entering the city center 15 pounds ($21) every day.

The owners of vehicles exceeding emissions thresholds will pay additional fees of up to 100 pounds in an expanded low-emission zone from October, as Sadiq Khan seeks to become the city's "greenest mayor."

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

In December 2020, a coroner ruled that air pollution made a "material contribution" to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013 - the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

It is against this backdrop that the exhibition wants to put the issue at the forefront of people's minds and encourage action.

"The processes and subject matter is a great way to show the ever-changing environment we see today," added Taylor.


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