When it comes to keeping a home, we go to great lengths to expunge filth. We grab brooms and dustpans to sweep dirt out. When rugs collect dust, they are beaten clean. A bouquet of feathers attached to a plastic handle dislodges the film that collects on the edges of picture frames. Without a thought, we banish dirt from our homes, believing the words of the traditional housekeeping mantra: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Cleanliness has come to reflect perfection in the individual. We forget that the dust in our homes contains fragments of our DNA, skin and hair. This human connection with dirt is explored in a Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art, a new exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Dust, ashes, smoke and dirt comprise the mediums found in the exhibition, uninvited elements that are rejected from our homes, despite bearing witness to our personal histories and environs. The stuff that makes its way to the dustpan is reconstituted into surprisingly intimate works that challenge our notions of beauty, time and, of course, cleanliness.
Multimedia artist Julie Parker finds herself inexplicably compelled by the detritus produced through human activity. Dust and hair are her favorite mediums, appearing often in her work. “Dust contains particles of our bodies. We leave some of it wherever we go… These indexical marks in the dust show the history of our movements,” says Parker. For her piece Ritual Accumulations, Parker gathered dryer lint from friends, family and acquaintances over several years, using the fibers to create a mosaic-like quilt. From afar, the quilt looks like it is crafted from traditional fabric, yet close inspection reveals the unmistakable texture of dryer lint, with bits of threads and flecks of paper caught in the soft, wooly squares. For Parker, the quilt is more than just creative repurposing, it’s an uncomfortable intimate artifact. “In addition to dust and hair, the lint from a clothes dryer contains fragments of cloth that have been in contact with our bodies.” Just underneath the quilt, where the wall meets the museum floor, a small pile of debris indicates material’s dirty origins.
Another work that plays with perspective is Catherine Bertola’s Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV). From a distance, it resembles a refined wallpaper pattern. The artist applied PVC glue to the walls of the gallery (presumably with the help of a stencil), then covered the wet glue with debris from the museum’s floor. A closer look at Bertola’s installation might make patrons squeamish — plenty of human hair is trapped and among the dust and dried glue. But the connection to filth is beautifully balanced by the richly decorative pattern, suitable for the likes of Louis XIV. “The choice of historic designs establishes an intimate domesticity to these uninhabited spaces, allowing the past to pervade the present with the transient traces and debris of human existence,” says Bertola.
While many artists in the exhibition dealt with the dirt that accumulates in our homes, Alexandre Orion addresses the filth that pervades the streets of crowded urban environments. In a 3-minute video entitled Ossário (see above), Orion approaches the underpass between Avenida Europa and Avenida Cidale Jardim in São Paulo, where a narrow catwalk divides the car traffic from a metal, grate-covered wall. In a sort of reverse-graffiti method, Orion uses a rag to remove the black soot caked onto the grate, revealing the clean white surface of the metal. Through selective removal, the artist creates a mural of gleaming white skulls that overlook the cars whizzing by. “It quietly criticizes our omission, our comfortable acceptance of pollution,” explains the artist’s statement. By the end of the video, Orion reveals São Paulo’s surprising reaction to his mural.
The dust bunny under your bed may be an unpleasant reminder of your negligent housekeeping, but within that cloudlike puff is a microcosm of daily life, an accumulated mass of genetic material and personal habit. While dirt may not belong in the home, as an artistic medium it reveals thought-provoking social complexities that challenge preconceived notions about the value of cleanliness.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.