How do you call attention to air? That’s what Rachel Allen aims to do in her installation “airplay” at Urbano Project. The Nez Perce artist likens air to cultural ideology. Both are everywhere, both are invisible. We take in smog or uneven power structures without thinking, and they can do terrible damage.
“Airplay” rather clumsily sets out to illustrate the metaphor.
Air is challenging to work with, except perhaps on a large scale. Otto Piene, the late king of inflatable art and director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (now the Program in Art, Culture and Technology), set great, colorful balloons afloat, joyfully illustrating air’s lightness. He left others on the ground; they ran on fans that made them seem to breathe, like us.
Then there’s Claire Ashley, whose enormous installation at Boston University’s 808 Gallery in 2017 was at once goofy and existential, and made cheeky, feminist nods to art history.
Allen no doubt has a smaller budget at Urbano Project. Her inflatables, suspended on pipes, are less numerous than Ashley’s. “Airplay” is interactive; you press buttons to puff up flaccid sacs attached to white pipes around the gallery. Allen prints them with layered and collaged landscapes of Nez Perce land in Idaho and Montana. Places where the air carries significant sounds and smells. Places imbued with stories.
Ghostly and hard to read but seething with high-keyed colors, these images are intense yet nebulous, as if to say, “here is a different air, if you breathe deeply enough.”
The installation pares down what ought to pervade the air into discrete visual objects. The push buttons reminded me of a toddler’s cause-and-effect toy. Pressing them is meant to evoke intentional respiration, an awareness of what we inhale, yet the air that inflates the landscapes seems separate from us as it travels through pipes.
With her puffy prints on pipes, Allen fails to pull off the sense of immersion she needs to effectively make her argument. Or to coax visitors into a paradigm shift that might awaken us, if only for a moment, to breathe in something fresh.
RACHEL ALLEN (NEZ PERCE): airplay
At Urbano Project, 29 Germania St., Jamaica Plain, through March 14. 617-983-1007, www.urbanoproject.org