A new public sculpture in Downtown Brooklyn invites passersby to just breathe.

In a time when breathing itself is under threat, Breathing Pavilion‘s 30-foot circle of lit-up columns invite you to step inside and inhale and exhale with them, as they modulate in brightness.

The idea behind artist Ekene Ijeoma’s first outdoor installation in NYC was to mimic deep breathing to bring calm, he said.

He said he created the sculpture both in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racial injustice in the United States, at a time when the act of breathing itself was under siege.

Photo: Kris Graves for Downtown Brooklyn Partnership

One of the rallying cries of the racial injustice protests of 2020 was, “I can’t breathe,” echoing the dying words of Black men who have died in police custody, including Eric Garner, Elijah McClain and George Floyd.

I held my breath for most of last year, waiting to exhale into a new administration and new vaccines,” Ijeoma said.

“It will still take some time before we see large-scale change. Until then, in these next few weeks, this pavilion is here to invite the public to breathe into the change within each of us, in sync with one another,”

The sculpture at The Plaza at 300 Ashland is made of two-tone inflatable columns, surrounding a central, carpeted area.

The immersive outdoor installation opened Tuesday, and is set to stand through May 11.

Photo: Kris Graves for Downtown Brooklyn Partnership

In these six weeks, Breathing Pavilion will be host to a series of events, including musical performances kicking off March 23.

Musicians in the series include Melanie Charles on flute, Joel Ross on vibraphone, and Baba Don Babatunde of the Last Poets.

Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Regina Myer said the sculpture was “entirely unique” and offered a much-needed moment for reflection.

“As we head into spring, outdoor public spaces remain at the core of our shared experience and Breathing Pavilion will serve as artwork with intention that can bring us together at a time when we must remain physically distanced.”

The sculpture was also the first public installation in Brooklyn for the Van Alen Institute through its Public Realm R&D program, started to test new strategies to bring people together in public space.

Photo: Kris Graves for Downtown Brooklyn Partnership

Van Alen is a nonprofit that creates equitable cities through inclusive design.

Van Alen Institute Executive Director Deborah Marton said 2020 permanently changed our relationship to public space.  

Ekene Ijeoma’s installation Breathing Pavilion is a profound and beautiful example of how public space can help heal us, safely and together,” she said. “Breathing Pavilion is an inspiration for the kind of city we want for our future.”

As well as being an artist, Ijeoma is a professor of Media Arts and Science at MIT, and founder and director of the Poetic Justice group at MIT Media Lab.

Ijeoma researches social inequality across multiple fields including social science to develop artworks in sound, video, multimedia, sculpture and installation.

His work has been commissioned and presented by art institutions including Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, The Kennedy Center, Museum of the City of New York, Neuberger Museum of Art, and Annenberg Space for Photography.

Breathing Pavilion was also presented with support from the property management company Two Trees Management Co.

The company’s Cultural Affairs Director said the work was a “graceful and forceful response to our current moment,” which providing respite and resolve, and spotlighting “the revolutionary potential of radical rest.”

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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