Installation view of the 2023 NGV Architecture Commission: <em>(This is) Air by Nic Brunsdon</em> at NGV International<br/>

The great breath

Mark Jacques

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

“Begin by taking a long slow, deep breath. Hold the breath and count
to three … two … one …”

The NGV Garden is alive, and not just with its pin oaks, understory plants and interloping urban birdlife. In the summer of 2023, the garden is also alive with breath. A great white lung inhales, exhales, flutters, huffs and puffs in the middle of the garden, at once massive and light. Its sphere is an emphatic and unescapable presence, holding its own against Roy Grounds’s monumental western facade and dwarfing later additions to the garden. When we see it on approach from the Great Hall it performs a sleight of hand, making the city’s tallest building disappear. All that is solid melts into air.

The breathing sphere in the garden is titled (This is) Air 1 and it is the work of Nic Brunsdon, an architect based in Perth whose practice also operates from Melbourne and Denpasar, Bali. Selected from a nationwide field of proposals, (This is) Air is the eighth NGV Architecture Commission, an ongoing initiative to commission temporary works of thought-provoking and immersive architecture. The brief encourages the submission of proposals that engage audiences in broad conversations that might provide new spaces for architecture to contribute to contemporary cultural discourse, as opposed to asking architects to work in a way predetermined by a commercial client.

Brunsdon’s ambition is material: the commission seeks to make the ubiquitous and unseen seen. To make air present. The twin skins of the pavilion (an outer fabric sphere of 16 metres in diameter and an inner one of 15 metres in diameter) are independently connected to air pumps, allowing them to be inflated and deflated in an ever-changing, neverchanging choreography of respiration. As the architect says, ‘Throughout the day, air will be inhaled and then released in a natural cadence and in this process the commission will morph and evolve. As it deflates, the irregular form will alter in unpredictable and intriguing ways, composing an endless array of new cloud-like configurations’.2 Seven times a day (at least – maybe more), the pavilion’s 135,000 litres of air will be expended over the course of just minutes – a sigh, of sorts, whose emission will be heard and felt throughout the garden and whose ideas whisper, blow through and reverberate throughout the three thematic pillars of the NGV Triennial 2023.

In addition to the conjuring trick that makes the tallest buildings of Southbank disappear, (This is) Air performs another magical feat – making the invisible visible and materialising the immaterial. For Brunsdon, ‘magic is in the celebration of that which is not seen … encouraging us to pay closer attention to our lives and the moments that comprise them’.3 Air has an existential significance for all forms of life. It is elemental and everywhere, but utterly invisible and impalpable. (This is) Air is an architectural instrument that reveals the invisible air around us by tracing its effects and evidencing them in space.

In this sense, (This is) Air might be seen as an unsolicited companion and late addition to artist Patrick Pound’s project for the NGV’s first Melbourne Now exhibition, titled The gallery of air, 2013.4 A room filled with hundreds of items, each representing or conveying an idea of air, Pound’s project seeks to make the invisible visible by summoning a vast, almost forensic array of evidence, from a Sunbeam Power Breeze hair dryer (1971) to Francisco de Goya’s Los Caprichos, 1799, which shows a farting child being used to fan flames; from the exhaling sheep of August Friedrich Schenck’s Anguish, 1878, to a study of billowing clouds by John Constable from 1822. The gallery is used as a space that presents the traces of something that remains both ubiquitous and absent.

Brunsdon, like Pound, establishes a space for the invisible to reveal itself; however, (This is) Air contains an implicit reference to the pandemic that Pound’s earlier project was not able to draw upon. Our collective awareness of the presence of another’s breath and the implicit risk of sharing air has been the defining trait of the period between this and the last Triennial. This is acknowledged by the Architecture Commission through the spatialising of a double-fabric skin and the curving of it inwards, towards the base, so that we can’t quite touch the source. Breath is kept at a social distance. (This is) Air reminds us that the air around us is invisible and innocuous until a crisis or shock calls it into our spatial awareness.

In a sense, (This is) Air is an analogue of the other way air manifests itself in the gallery – that is, through the mechanical systems that we rely on to bring air in from the garden, filter that air and distribute it through gallery spaces before sending it, exhausted, to the street. This air, like all city air, is not a closed system. It is unevenly distributed, privileging some spaces and constituents over others.

The German phrase Stadtluft macht frei (urban air makes you free) describes a principle of law in the Middle Ages whereby serfs who came to the city were liberated from their employers and became bound to the collective. The tension in our contemporary reading of this phrase – that the freedoms provided by sharing urban life come contingent upon sharing air with others, sharing air with mechanical processes and sharing air with processes of extraction – is that sharing matter is never matter-of-fact. Where there is sharing, there is contestation, inequity and discrimination.

These concerns are echoed in the practice of Carolyn Lazard, who is represented in the NGV Triennial 2023 by the works Critical load and Privatization, both 2020, which are displayed together. The Philadelphia-based artist’s work spans video, performance, sculpture and writing, and often draws from her experiences of living with chronic illness: readymade objects are framed through the lens of disability.

Privatization consists of a series of HEPA air filters, which sterilise the air in the gallery space. Companion piece Critical load is an hourglass filled with dust from the McCoy quarries in Pennsylvania, which has been responsible for respiratory problems in communities of colour. Critical load becomes a critical reprise of Marcel Duchamp’s 50 cc of Paris Air, 1919 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), a glass ampoule purchased from a Parisian pharmacy with the air inside the ampoule anointed as art. In Lazard’s work, the air of a Parisian pharmacy has become suffocated with granite dust and is an invitation to reconsider our relationship to air – a relationship that is contingent on metrics of race, class and health.

As a piece of temporary architecture, (This is) Air is a productive inversion of architect Aldo Rossi’s ideas about collective memory. For Rossi, the physical attributes of the city become a shared pool of memory and knowledge and the relationship between this memory and its citizenry becomes the city’s predominant image. For Brunsdon, it’s not the object that the collective attaches memory to, but the memory of the collective act that summons the object.

Breath is our collective common ground and involuntary respiration a defining behaviour of life on earth. In this way, the respiratory rhythm and cadence of the Architecture Commission is familiar to us even before we experience it. In addition to this muscle memory, Brunsdon’s piece is charged with the visual memory of fellow travellers who reveal the unseen by seeking to conceal it. (This is) Air is seemingly an homage to the draped faces of René Magritte’s The Lovers II, 1928; the swaddled section of Little Bay, Sydney in Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped coast, 1969; and the framed firmament of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton, 1784. It contains a whispered memory of the spheres of space stations and military communication facilities, and of the Chinese spy balloon (both inflated and expired) shot down over Lake Huron, USA in 2023.

The eighth NGV Architecture Commission is a vessel whose task transcends the object by seeking to make the invisible manifest, by wanting to tell us that matter is never matter-of-fact, and by reminding us of the shared memory in a universal and unconscious act.

“Exhale. Slowly allow your attention to expand, notice your entire body and then beyond your body to the room you are in.
Keep breathing.”

MARK JACQUES is an urban designer and landscape architect. He is a Professor of Architecture at RMIT University and is the founder of Openwork, an office undertaking projects in public space, research and speculation.



The title of Brunsdon’s work is a reference to David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life’, commencement lecture, Kenyon College, Ohio, 21 May 2005.


Nic Brunsdon, 2023 NGV Architecture Commission proposal, 2022, p. 1.


ibid. p. 2.


Patrick Pound, ‘The gallery of air’, Art Journal, NGV, no. 53, , accessed 7 June 2023.