“It kind of feels like a science exhibit,” says Missoula Art Museum Director Steve Glueckert, “although we’re trying to keep it as rooted in art as possible. It’s kind of a strange experience for us, working with so many scientists. This would be a great exhibit for a natural science museum.”
By way of an opening for its The Landscape of Asbestos: Libby and Beyond exhibit, which is actually a collection of exhibitions that grew out of a broad collaboration of artists, writers and scientists, the Art Museum has arranged a press conference and symposium featuring a who’s-who in national and regional asbestos awareness. Among the experts taking part in the symposium are journalist Andrew Scheider, who broke the story of asbestos exposure in Libby in a series of articles for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; photographer Bill Ravanesi, who took most of the pictures on display; and New Yorker staff writer Paul Brodeur, who also contributed much of the exhibit signage.
During a talkback session, Scheider and Brodeur take turns fielding audience questions. Brodeur, considered by some to be the “dean” of environmental writing, wrote his first article about the health hazards of asbestos in 1968, when industry officials, he claims, were still urging factory managers to tell their employees that asbestos fiber was safe to eat.
Jim Fite, executive director of the White Lung Association, sits quietly between Scheider and Brodeur, the corners of his mouth pulled down in what appears to be a permanent tight-lipped grimace. Later, over a cup of coffee in the museum bookstore, the grimace relaxes into a droll smile as Fite considers a rather oblique question posed just a few minutes earlier: Why, in what most of us probably hope is a benevolent nature, must we be plagued by such a destructive substance?
“Kant,” he recites, assuming the arch expression peculiar to those about to quote philosophy, “would say that asbestos is there to test us.”
“Us” meaning humanity, and if the evidence on display at the Art Museum is any indication, we’ve failed the test miserably. Fite isn’t just a spokesman for asbestos abatement and victims’ rights; his portrait also hangs in the exhibition as one of “The Victims” photographed by Bill Ravanesi in the late ’80s. Ravanesi’s photographs, mostly portraits shot in American and Canadian communities ravaged by asbestos-related disease, are at the center of The Landscape of Asbestos. Accompanied by Brodeur’s eloquent signage, they tell a sobering story of corporate deception and human misery.
They are not, however, the best place to start navigating the exhibition (and for all the science, as Glueckert says, it is still supposed to be an art exhibition), which is so overwhelming that you almost need to make two visits to take it all in. The place to start moving through the museum is a gallery of vintage publicity photos of the Johns-Manville asbestos insulation factory in Manville, New Jersey. Many of the future victims photographed by Ravanesi worked at the Manville factory; a few of them you can actually see, 30 or 40 years younger, in the publicity photos, which were handed over under court order during one of the roughly 15,000 lawsuits served to Johns-Manville and about a dozen other asbestos insulation corporations between 1971 and 1982. (The EPA, Brodeur says, didn’t get around to imposing any real restrictions on asbestos until the 1970s, by which time “tens upon tens of thousands of American workers had been sickened with irreversible lung disease.”)
In the industry photos, you see middle-aged women trimming asbestos insulation with no ventilators, respirators or protective apparatus of any kind. You see shirtless men heaving sacks of raw asbestos around Building “E” of the Manville plant, where employee and future victim Joe Darabant later remembered asbestos dust hanging so thick in the air that he couldn’t see from one end of the room to the other. Ominously, at least in retrospect, one photo shows the Manville employees posing near a cheerful—and, as it turns out, cynical—banner proclaiming the challenge: “Do You Believe in Safety?”
From the publicity photos, it’s an easy segue to the adjoining wall hung with magazine advertisements for asbestos products from the ’20s to the ’60s: “chatterless” transmission linings, “Royal” emergency brakes, and a wide assortment of other consumer goods—including a popular brand of cigarette with a filter of 30 percent crushed asbestos. Asbestos doesn’t just have applications in industry promotions; it has personalities and roles, including those of freedom fighter and savior of the world for democracy. “No Ersatz for Asbestos,” crows a full-page 1943 industry ad touting asbestos’s role in the war effort, complete with crude caricatures of the various Axis nationalities and personalities. Nearby, there’s a 1951 ad for the Keasbey and Mattison Company made to look like the popular comic-page serial “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” right down to the font and line-art illustrating various amazing asbestos facts. Museum Director Glueckert says the work of these commercial artists, with their “different perceptions of the heroic aspects” of asbestos, stands in stark contrast to what he calls “the reality.”
That reality is literally right around the corner from the commercial fantasia. It starts with “The Victims” and it casts what you’ve already seen in a drastically different light—not ignorance, not even foolhardy optimism, but low-down dirty complicity. Manufacturers like Johns-Manville, Brodeur’s text explains, knew about the harmful effects of asbestos fiber on human health well before the ’60s and ’70s, but many claimed ignorance for over 40 years while knowingly exposing hundreds of thousands of workers to the substance without adequate—without any—abatement strategies, protective apparel or safety precautions. To date, Brodeur claims, over 20 million workers have undergone occupational exposure to asbestos. Hundreds of thousands have developed or are expected to develop asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and/or mesothelioma, an “invariably malignant and fatal” cancer of the membranes encasing the lungs and stomach. Tens of thousands have already died.
Including several of “The Victims,” photographed by Bill Ravanesi, many of whom developed symptoms long after retiring; the latency period for some asbestos-related disease, Brodeur notes, can be anywhere from 15 to 45 years. There are cases of asbestos-related disease in Manville residents who never set foot on the factory grounds, probably caused by family members who came home from work covered with the microscopic fibers, hugged wives and tussled with children. Even of those victims still alive in 1986 and 1989, when most of the portraits were made, many are probably dead by now, too.
The Landscape of Asbestos is exhausting in the sheer scale of the tragedy it depicts: So many individuals, you realize, and those in the Ravanesi portraits just details of a bigger picture that would includes thousands more like them. One outsized print in the “Victims” gallery that gives the visitor a through-line from the fantasy to the reality is the 1989 portrait of Joe Darabant, the Johns-Manville employee who recalled asbestos dust so thick he couldn’t see across the room. Darabant worked in the Manville plant’s “E” building for over 30 years; he’s one of the healthy, industrious employees pictured handling raw asbestos 40 years earlier in the promotional photos surrendered under court order. Fifteen years after retiring, he developed symptoms of asbestosis; by 1989 he needed canned oxygen 24 hours a day.
For the most part, The Landscape of Asbestos favors individuals over their pathology, but there’s no divorcing the two in the show’s most moving photograph: a mesothelioma patient lying in a hospital bed, literally prostrated by the tumor bulging out from under the back of his ribcage, mumbling a videotaped deposition in a fog of agony—he’d declined his pain medication in order to give the clearest, least contestable statement possible.
Glueckert himself looks a little exhausted by the enormity of the exhibition. There’s still more to be added, too: On May 28, a new gallery will open with mining relics and memorabilia from Libby, an asbestos-wracked community closer to home than Manville, New Jersey.
“It’s not for everybody,” he says of Landscape. “But the arts have a way of making us see truth and then have to figure out how to cope with it.”
The Landscape of Asbestos is on view at the Missoula Art Museum through the end of June.