HeHe and Claude Monet

"Without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city.” These words were written by the French painter, Claude Monet. Between 1899 and 1901, the beauty of his renowned Impressionist paintings was a product of skies that were unnaturally colorful  because the city was choked by the smog of the Industrial Revolution. Two environmental scientists, Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes of the University of Birmingham, are rewriting art history by claiming that Monet’s atmospheric images of London were not artistic imaginings; they were the products of accurate observation. In fact, Monet's impressions seem so accurate that the scientists are examining them as a source of information regarding London air quality during this period. “We believe,” Thornes says, “that we can basically deconstruct the images to work out how much smoke would have to be in the air to create that visibility and those colors in, say, February 1900.”

Hehe Champs-dozone

"Champs D'Ozone"

Thus, when Hehe created “Champs D’Ozone” (2007), overlaying a real time image of Paris skies with colors representing the unseen pollutants it contained, they were perpetuating an honored artistic legacy. Claude Monet’s paintings of the skies of European cities in the 19th century are also awash with unusual colors, due in part to human-made pollution.

Like Monet’s paintings, Hehe’s Pollstream projects create dazzling visual spectacles of urban air laden with smoke and contaminants. However, Monet seemed content to revel in the visual splendor, while HeHe link the colors to actual levels of pollutants, forcing viewers to pay critical attention to the unsavory atmospheric brew that the colors represent. Each tone that appears in “Champs D’Ozone” visualizes data that measures the quality of air in the city as calculated in quasi real time by the Airpariff website. In this manner, information on the quality of the air expands beyond typical cartographic representation. Instead, it is actually diffused by and through the air itself. This occurs because HeHe developed the technology to generate a computer-generated cloud that appears to hang over the city. It is saturated with changing colors that reflect the changing concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and particle dust suspended in the air.

HeHe explains that this is one of a series of works titled “Pollstream” that explore human-made clouds. “We are fascinated by clouds because of their movement, and because of their natural undefined form – which makes them difficult to be fixed in time. Across a number of projects, clouds are used as a visual metaphor to aestheticise emissions and chemical toxins. In popular culture, the meaning of man-made clouds, have changed to reflect the concerns of the ages: They have been used in the 19th century as a sign of economic prosperity, in the 1920’s to express spiritual energy, in the 60’s as am emblem for workers revolution, in the 80’s as the ultimate icon of pollution. Likewise, pollstream offers alternative meanings for today’s man-made clouds, which, hopefully, challenge the ideologies of our times.”