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What Would It Take for You to Leave the City?

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

Michael Pinsky's Pollution Pods grapples with one of the big existential concerns of our city. But are we left with the smell of defeatism, or hope?

The Cloud

When I was a baby, I was wrongly diagnosed with asthma. My dad had just gone bankrupt, and we were living in a one bedroom flat when he took me, in my pram, over to Greenwich. As he neared the top of the hill, he saw the smog blanket which coated the city below, and recalls feeling utterly helpless. He had to get me to cleaner climes, but he lacked the financial capability to do so.

The statistics surrounding air pollution are staggering. It is estimated that 9500 Londoners die every year from symptoms relating to the poor air. In Delhi, its 2.5 million. Although these statistics are drawn from the sensationalist wing of the science/media community, any perambulator through the streets of a major world city can smell that things aren’t right.

My father’s feeling of imminence, however, is a rarity in our cloudy imagination of this threat. Urban living remains so precarious that our capacity for dealing with social issues is usually confined to immediate danger. This seems to be the reason why terrorism - though claiming a far lower casualty list - can hold such prominence in the average Londoner’s psyche.

It is also for this reason that smokey-lunged commuters and pedestrians across the world cough absentmindedly when annual targets on air quality are swallowed up in weeks.

How, then, do we engage people with this issue?

Art for the Lungs

This concern is the driving force behind Michael Pinksy’s ‘Pollution Pods’. It invites people to sample the air of 5 different global cities, like an international buffet for the nostrils. We walk through London; Beijing; New Delhi; Sao Paolo; before finally resting in Tautra, Norway, where our pallet is cleansed by an enviously Nordic aroma.

Every pod contains an air conditioning unit reminiscent of what you would find in a cheap European travel agency. Each one emits its own metropolitan flavour, and this divergence in the spectacle’s sensual offering is the exhibition’s greatest accomplishment. We are forced to recognise that ‘air pollution’ is a broad and messy term, encompassing the Nitrogen Oxide emissions produced by London’s thirst for diesel, to the choking soot of Beijing.

Amidst the opulent surroundings of Somerset House, however, ‘Pollution Pods’ has a surprisingly tacky, amateurish feel to it. The passageways between the pods are partitioned by unsealed doors, meaning the smells of each city drift freely between the pods. The plastic of the domes, heated under the glare of this year’s intense spring sun, adds its own odour to the experience, as the separate ingredients of Pinsky’s work simmer in to a soup.

Unintended Symbolism

These blemishes do speak to a truth about air pollution, however. It is a borderless phenomenon, which though the offspring of industrial cities, can just as easily find home in the glaciers of the North Pole or the upper echelons of the heavens as the lungs of the metropolis.

Departing the exhibition on to the frenzied roads around Waterloo Bridge and Soho, I was struck by another, more unsettling truth.

The city has provided us with technologies of awesome power. Not only do these technologies enable our destruction of the environment; they have provided us with the means to monitor, record and - the final irony - artistically comment on the damage done in minute detail.

The city is a masochist. Like Pinsky’s exhibition, it finds its value nowhere more evidently than in its forensic examination and lamentations of its own folly.

This, perhaps, is the reason why I come out of ‘Pollution Pods’ with a similar ambivalence to that which informs our social response to what is a very grave concern. I am a child of the city, born in one of its overcrowded hospitals, raised on a branch of its leafy suburbs, and working under the auspices of its monstrous towers. As it spat me out, so too it may swallow me up in its cloudy embrace again.

Photos and Video from: and


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