Breathe! Respiration, breath and whispers in contemporary artistic practices | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

Notes and personal memories from a two day conference in Barcelona

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Breath, present in the aristotelic philosophy as the element that unites the body with the soul and the person with the environment, is an act that involves something almost immaterial, of infinite plasticity and open to innumerable interpretations. The proposition "Breathe!" wants to deal with breathing from an interdisciplinary point of view: philosophy, medicine, artistic practice and poetry will present it in its different aspects contributing thus to meet new ways of thinking and new ways of living the body.

Photo courtesy of Rufino Mesa

Take a breath.

Focus on it.

What kind of information does it bring? How many aspects does it have? How can you analyze or transform it? How can it transform you?

So many different questions for such a simple everyday act.

During the two-day symposium “Breathe! Respiration, breath and whispers in contemporary artistic practices”, that took place in Barcelona, on April 6th and 7th, the participants sought to answer the different kind of questions about breath and tried to map new ways of experiencing and transforming breath.

Coming from different disciplines, the participants followed different paths of thinking and analyses; yet, those paths intersected on many points -such as the connection of breath to life, thought, emotions and the world.

Cesar Picado, pneumologist and academic professor,  explored the subject of "Dispnea or when breathing becomes hard"[1]; based on a physiological analysis of breath, he explained how air enters the body and how it is processed through the lungs -as well as the kind of information that comes along with the sense of smell. Then he explained how respiratory problems can influence a person's body and life, giving some examples of different personalities from popular culture and literature that dealt with these problems.

After “bodily” breath, we expanded our research onto the field of “cultural” breath. In my presentation "Visual transformations of Beckett's ´breath´" I tried to see how different philosophical theories about breath reflect widely known breathing practices and are reflected on theatrical plays and visual artworks. The case of Samuel Beckett was pivotal in this sense, because he uses breath as one of the primary elements in his minimalist plays; his work had a profound impact on many artists, such as Adriano and Fernando Guimaraes, Nikos Navridis and Damien Hirst[2].

At the end of the first day, the participants along with the audience had an opportunity to experience these theories by practising breath. The Yoga professor Isabel Grajera came and initiated the public into the art of Yoga by simple breathing exercises. Through the instructions of Grajera, the audience was encouraged to explore their breathing, to find their inner peace and to control their body and their mind. Therefore, what became clear was how controlled breathing can lead to a different state of mind.

The next day was dedicated to Rufino Mesa’s work “Whispers in a hole”. The artist introduced the public to his life and his work, by narrating incidents in his life that lingered in his memory and shaped his artistic thought: a friend losing breath, his father blowing into his hands to warm them up, different types of breath that communicated different ideas and emotions.

Rufino Mesa's special sensitivity lead the artist to transform these intangible moments into works of art[3]: saying good morning to the sun for a year[4], confessing his inner thoughts to an empty tube, incorporating "holes" burdened with breaths and secrets into large sculptures.

The same idea lays beneath his work "Whispers in a hole" that was the subject of the discussion among the artist, the poet Alfonso Levy and the professor of philosophy Pere Salabert. The two speakers analysed his work by focusing on the basic concepts that recur in it: the magic of the spoken and handwritten word, the power of human will and the multiple faces of the artist's creation.

On the same day, the artist made the installation "Whispers in a hole" in the University of Barcelona. He installed seven empty copper tubes along the hall of the University, a space that is usually full of voices and vivid talks, steps and laughter, yet it suddenly seemed deafeningly silent. People stared at the tubes shyly, not knowing what to say. Whatever they said would be captured along with their breaths; the artist would safeguard their secrets in the tubes and then introduce into a larger sculpture.

Thus a stone sculpture would acquire life by the power of the participants' breaths and thoughts. Like the protagonist in the film "In the mood for love"[5], who confesses his great secret in a hole sculpted by time on the surface of an ancient building, the people that interact with the installation can find relief from an emotional burden. It is a healing process for the participants, who got to confess their innermost secrets not to a religious figure or a psychologist, but to an almost mystical object.

After a few moments of awkwardness, the people started to proceed and tell their stories to the empty tubes, then close the lid to guard their breaths and secrets. As I waited for my turn, I started thinking about all the different things I wanted to save in this tube for eternity: thoughts, emotions, memories of people. However, when I opened the lid of the tube and stared at the emptiness inside, the only thing that came through my mouth was a short verse: "On your back to rejoice in the dawn of things"[6].

When the conference was over Rufino Mesa packed the tubes in a suitcase and set to leave. A huge suitcase loaded with the breaths, the secrets, the wishes, the hopes, the dreams of so many people. Yet the suitcase seemed surprisingly light for this kind of weight.

And the artist carried it away with a smile.


[1] You can view the program of the conference here:

[2] A part of the ideas presented has already been published in Interartive: Christina Grammatikopoulou, "Retaging Beckett: Hirst, Navridis and hermanos Guimarães taking a “Breath” ", Interartive #4, November 2008,

[3] Also read: Lucila Vilela, “Rufino Mesa: Esculpir Instantes”, Interartive #1, June 2008,

[4] Rufino Mesa, “Fénix o la ciudad del sol”,

[5] Film directed by Wong Kar Wai (2000). To watch the ending scene in YouTube, click here

[6] Verse from Odisseas Elytis' poem, “Marina of the rocks”