When Zhou Yan was growing up in Xi'an, China, air quality wasn't something she worried about — so she was surprised when, back for a visit in the mid 2010s, the air had become discernibly more polluted.

"The smog had gotten really bad," said Zhou, the Toronto-based curator of a current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) called Breathing in China. "It's not easy to describe it; what you see, what you smell and how your skin feels."

She said the bad air combined with a feeling of increased political repression among her peers there led to a feeling of suffocation, both literal and figurative. It was also the genesis of the idea for her current AGH exhibit, which layers issues of smog, political repression, capitalism and COVID-19. 

The diverse exhibit features video art, sculpture, drawing and painting, including a stark spread of emotional sketches of repressive scenes from COVID-19 lockdowns, and a series of photos that contrast the colourful costumes of a spring festival in Shanxi, a coal-producing province in North China, to a dark brown, polluted sky. It runs at the AGH until the end of the year and features work from artists based in both China and Canada.

Zhou Yan.
Exhibit curator Zhou Yan. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

Since she started working on the project, Zhou said the air quality has actually gotten better in big Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but has gotten worse in the Chinese "hinterland;" in other nearby countries such as South Korea, India, Thailand, and Indonesia; and in southern Ontario, where she has lived since 2009. 

"During the research process we found the movement of smog actually follows money," she said.

Exhibit 'a reminder' that reducing pollution requires political work

Zhou set up her exhibit at the museum in early June, while Hamilton was experiencing unprecedentedly poor air quality from forest fire smoke. She said she reached out to CBC Hamilton after reading that breathing the city's air is like smoking part of a cigarette a day when it comes to certain chemicals — something she thought was more likely in China than Canada.

It means the exhibit is coming to Hamiltonians at the right time, she said, a sentiment shared by Melissa Bennett, the AGH's senior curator of contemporary art, who first pitched the exhibit to the gallery.

Two art pieces beside each other in a dark gallery showing images of Chinese life.
Exhibits in current Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibit 'Breathing in China: Art, Ethics, and the Environment' touch on ideas of physical and metaphorical suffocation. (Lisa Narduzzi/Submitted by the Art Gallery of Hamilton)

She said Zhou's unique perspective, as a bridge between China and Canada who cares deeply about people and the environment, can help inform gallery visitors about the political work required to keep our air easy to breathe.

"[The exhibit is] educating people about the environment in China but absolutely relates to how people operate in cities here," Bennett told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday. "It's a reminder of the activism we need to do to keep our municipalities in check [and of] what is acceptable air quality here."

A young person in a white modern jacket and traditional facepaint stands on a street in a town with air so dark it seems foggy.
Photos by Chinese artist Zhang Xiao, on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, expose the geographical inequity when it comes to air quality for people in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing compared to residents of many rural areas, where anti-pollution measures have not been enacted, says the artist. (Submitted by Zhou Yan)

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