What’s in a name?

For a very long time this exhibition didn’t have a name. The working title ‘Life of Breath exhibition’ was never going to catch on and, despite several brainstorming sessions, a better option remained as elusive as the breath itself. As you can see from the picture below, a lot of options were considered. ‘Breathe’ was too generic. ‘Take My Breath Away’ and ‘Every Breath You Take’ left me with the tunes by Berlin and The Police looping in my head. Others made me think too much about death. Nothing we came up with was quite right.

Like all the best ideas, ‘Catch Your Breath’ came to me quite suddenly. Durham is quite hilly (some people would say ‘quite’ is an understatement) and, despite being fairly fit, the hike up to Palace Green Library for an exhibition meeting left me breathing heavily. I paused to ‘catch my breath’, lightning struck and the rest is history.

‘Catch Your Breath’ is a phrase with many meanings. Taken literally the idea of ‘catching’ – of measuring, studying, visualising or describing – the ethereal breath is central to both the exhibition and the Life of Breath research project. From Jayne Wilton’s organic sculptures to spirometers and peak flow meters, in the exhibition we feature some of the ways both artists and clinicians have tried to capture the breath.

Happen (2012) Jayne Wilton

‘Catch your breath’ is also an example of the rich language and metaphor around the breath. Think about all the other sayings – with bated breath, don’t hold your breath, under your breath – that describe aspects of the experience. Along with more descriptive terms like wheeze, pant and sigh, the lack of a clear physical form means the breath has provided rich pickings for artists, writers and philosophers. Our research has also uncovered that despite this richness, language can underpin miscommunication in doctor/patient relationships and fuel the social stigma associated with breathlessness.

Being unable to ‘catch your breath’ is commonly used as a metaphor for breathlessness. Whether due to illness or pollution, not being sure that the next breath will be easy or safe can be a terrifying experience. One of our main aims for this exhibition was to share the stories of people who live with breathlessness in an attempt to challenge the stigma that surrounds it. The most engaging of these stories feature in the specially commissioned film, Still/Breathing (2018) by Matt James Smith. Although the underlying causes of their breathlessness are varied – from asthma to anxiety – the people featured share remarkably similar insights into what it feels like to be breathless, how it impacts on their life and why lung disease can be so invisible and misunderstood.

Finally, ‘catch your breath’ can mean ‘take a break’ and we hope that people visiting the exhibition will do just that – take some time out from everyday life to reflect on their breath and what it means to them.

Sarah McLusky, Project Manager

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