Cleaning the Air with Art

Chicago’s new Museum of Contemporary Art was built with six tons of synthetic gypsum drywall. That in itself is not extraordinary: There’s wallboard throughout the museum, which opened to the public in July. But what is unusual is that the museum’s fourth-floor drywall is partially made of gypsum that had been used in an art project called “Sulfur Cycle” by Chicago environmental artist Dan Peterman.

Synthetic gypsum is something of an “accidental building material.” It is formed during the reaction between limestone and sulfur used in power plant scrubbing systems which aim to reduce pollution by extracting sulfur from emissions.

Peterman’s “Sulfur Cycle” explores the effects of the 1990 Clear Air Act, enacted to help reduce both emissions and acid rain. It also calls attention to Chicago’s Clean Air Allowance Auction, an annual sale of sulfur dioxide “pollution rights,” co-sponsored by the Chicago Board of Trade and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I want to introduce a language of ideas and issues, as opposed to drawing conclusions. One of my pathways is to look at ecological systems, but not knock you over the head,” says Peterman, who has received international recognition for art which uses reprocessed, post-consumer plastics and aluminum to focus on issues like recycling and waste disposal. Peterman’s past projects include a picnic table made from recycled plastic milk containers, and a model homeless shelter made of blocks of crushed aluminum cans.

The original “Sulfur Cycle” exhibit consisted of 164 sheets of ordinary drywall laid out in six stacks on the museum floor, each stack weighing a ton. But in the new museum, Peterman’s drywall contains a ton of “displaced” sulfur from a coal-burning electric power plant in Porter, Indiana that otherwise would have become air pollution. Peterman also acquired the sulfur’s emissions rights (the legal right to send it up a smokestack) for $250 a ton. Peterman’s “pollution records” (trading certificate and displaced sulfur) will remain in the museum until the acquired “right to pollute” expires in 2001.

“The claim of being an ecological artist leads people to assume you have a ‘save the world’ philosophy,” says Peterman, who works with the non-profit Chicago Resource Center. “I would simply say that the environment is quietly motivating me.”