The large-scale thematic exhibition Atmen deals with the different facets of breathing and its representation in the art of the old masters and the present. More than 100 works are brought together in exciting, sometimes epoch-spanning dialogues. The result is an unconventional exchange on an existential topic that initially seems like an unconscious, biological process, but has a wide range of social and political dimensions.
Since ancient times, breath is more than just air flowing in and out of the body. It is the vehicle of life, thought, inspiration and in many world cultures also the soul. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, breathing in is considered a central moment of the divine act of creation. Breathing is life, while losing it is death. Nevertheless, our breathing is often taken for granted in everyday life, which only comes into focus when it disappears – due to illness, climate change, pandemics or physical violence. For example, George Floyd’s last words in 2020, “I can’t breathe,” have become almost synonymous with racist and institutional violence.
Far from being a neutral physiological process, breathing always makes a – more or less obvious – socio-political statement. The supply of air reveals mechanisms of social and political inclusion and exclusion on very different levels, also and especially in the time of a global pandemic in which access to oxygen has become vital. At the same time, we are experiencing the potential of aerosols to cause illness and, under certain circumstances, to bring death. Our own breath and that of our fellow human beings has become a danger, which is contrary to the actually life-sustaining principle of breathing and radically questions our relationship to the world and to each other.