Table of Contents, Berlin: Olympic Air, 2008
Wooden trestles, cardboard, plastic bags, air gathered from the sites of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, poster.
Performed with Shu Hung, September 2008.
In 2007 a Beijing-based company (Beijing Lunar Village Aeronautics Science and Technology) attempted to sell plastic bags filled with air from German stadiums that hosted matches of the 2006 World Cup. Each bag of air was priced at 50 yuan (€5). A Beijing court intervened, however, preventing the company from selling this air by ruling that “air is too vague and unstable a concept to be covered by commercial classifications.” The same hesitation over commodifying “vague and unstable concepts” does not seem to hold in Berlin, where a bottle of “Berlin air” can be purchased in many souvenir shops. Perhaps the Chinese authorities were not ready to make the cognitive leap from mimesis to metaphor that is required to see specific categories of air as the sort of thing that can be bottled and sold.
Long before air entered the realm of touristic commodities, Marcel Duchamp called attention to air as a conceptual entity with his 1919 readymade 50 cc of Paris Air. This act of transforming an everyday substance (air) into a work of art—i.e., an object of value—led the way for its future commodification by German shop owners and Chinese entrepreneurs. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that an everyday object—a souvenir—functions metaphorically (since air bottled Berlin is indiscernible from air bottled in Beijing, Paris, London or New York). Metaphor is typically seen as the province of the arts, whether visual, verbal or performative. Arthur Danto’s philosophy of art, for example, is based in large on a distinction between objects that function in an everyday manner and those that function metaphorically. If metaphor pervades the world of everyday objects as well, then the boundary often held up between the art world and the public sphere appears dubious. The branding and sale of air suggests that metaphorically charged sites are available to anyone who cares to examine the world of everyday phenomena.