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Dirty work is beautiful

Review, Object Eye Magazine, Issue 63, Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, New York, 2012.

Walking through the galleries of the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition Swept Way, I was struck by complex feelings of urgency and contemplation. Dust, ashes, dirt and smoke. The transformative potential of these overlooked and discarded materials imbued the space with insistence and presence. The work plays on notions of the elasticity of time, the endurance of making the work and the compression of that time as the works disintegrate – or in some cases disappear completely.

The Delusion of Grandeur, by British artist Phoebe Cummings is a large, intricate, unfired clay bouquet painted with a thin slip of clay, which, as it dries, splits and erodes into a dusty earthen powder. As the petals fall over the duration of the exhibition, an atmosphere of loss and reflection permeates the space as the carefully constructed flower arrangement gives in to the hopelessness of its medium. The visual poetry of this quiet piece is juxtaposed by its neighboring work, Black Ceremony, by Cai Guo-Qiang.The documentation of a large explosive performance is a brilliantly choreographed gunpowder and fireworks spectacle originally commissioned in 2011 by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, as part of the artist’s solo exhibition. The work is a memorial to all who have died in foreign lands, including the tens of thousands of Muslims who, since the seventh century, have immigrated to the artist’s hometown of Quanzhou.

Moving through the exhibition space I recall Francis Alÿs and his powerful work Paradox of the Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), where the artist documented an action performed on the streets of Mexico City in 1997. The film depicts a simple and seemingly pointless endeavour - a large block of ice being pushed through the city streets for nine hours until it melts away to nothing.  On the same streets, thousands of locals spend their days pushing, carrying or towing wares or chattels. The results are the same: nothing to show for all the hard work.

Like Alÿs, many artists in Swept Away use intense observation and recording of the social, cultural and economic conditions of particular places. For example street artist Alexandre Orion’s Ossário video documents his reverse graffiti project, carried out over seventeen nights in the automobile exhaust–encrusted Max Feffer traffic tunnel in São Paolo. Using rags, the artist wiped away soot from the tunnel walls to create a tableau of over three thousand human skulls. His intervention ironically made his cleaning of the environment into a crime when the police came to stop him. Later, tunnel maintenance crews washed away the work of art with power hoses in what Swept Away’s curator David McFadden so aptly describes as ‘a bizarre amalgamation of cleaning and censorship.’

A Hitchcock-esque scene appears in one gallery space as a flock of crows made from burnt wood peck at the gallery floor and appear to move around leaving debris of charcoal in their collective wanderings. Murder by Canadian artist Maskull Masserre is a half narrative, teasing the audience with clues making the work both unexpected and obvious.

British artist Catherine Bertola uses dust collected in the museum galleries to execute her site-specific installation Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV). Bertola’s research has shown that such material contains human hair and skin cells. Her process of painting glue on the walls in decorative patterns, then blowing the material onto it, creates at once intricate, delicate and imperfect wallpaper designs that celebrate the sublime in the everyday.

Other works of note include British artist Paul Hazelton with his eccentric sculpture Death Duster, 2011. Hazelton has created a skeletal head made of household dust formed around a domestic dusting brush. His interest in dust originated in the immaculate, somewhat claustrophobic home of his childhood.  Vik Muniz, Andy Goldsworthy, and Jim Denevan work with the landscape itself, manipulating its natural features to create ephemeral interventions.

Twenty five artists were represented in this survey exhibition, mining the detritus of our everyday world to show that even the most insignificant materials can reach the sublime and captivate our imagination.

Nina Stromqvist

Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design ran February 7 to August 5, 2012, at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. Visit http://www.madmuseum.org for more information

Image credits

  1. Phoebe Cummings, Flora, 2010, unfired clay                                                                                                                                            
  2. Margaret Boozer, Correlation Drawing/Drawing Correlations: A Five Borough Reconnaissance Soil Survery, 2011                                
  3. Maskull Lasserre, Murder, 2012, 19 charcoal crows and ravens made of burned wood