“THERE is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder”.
That is the quote, from the British anthropologist Mary Douglas, that greets visitors to the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’ exhibition.
On one side a 23-year-old pale girl smiles, next to this sees an image where her skin has turned blue, her hair scraggly and her smile has been replaced by a disconcerting frown.
A bold remark – suggesting dirt and beauty share similar qualities – but does she have a point?
The exhibition is split into six different sections. Varying in context, destination and time, visitors are taken on an unclean journey through history beginning in The Home in Delft, 1683.
It is here visitors are immediately faced with ‘Dirt Window #1’ (James Croak, 1991). Sculpting with the brown stuff since 1980, the intricacy in the piece means it looks like an exact replica of a window – only made of dirt. Yes, this is one piece of art that certainly doesn’t need polishing. In fact, a continued walk around The Home passes ‘Untitled’ (Igor Eskinja, 2011) where dust was layered in neat circles only to have since lost its pristine appearance and become a vision of smudges.
Another notable piece is Susan Collis’ ‘Waltzer’ (2007), which combines the aforementioned beauty and dirt to create a paint-splattered broom with precious stones swept up between the bristles.
Over in The Street – a section looking at London in 1854 – there’s a heavy focus on health issues of the period. Cholera is an aspect of many of the pieces with an 1831 painting of a young Venetian woman depicted before and after contracting the disease. On one side a 23-year-old pale girl smiles, next to this sees an image where her skin has turned blue, her hair scraggly and her smile has been replaced by a disconcerting frown.
‘Laid to Rest’ (Serena Korda, 2011) is a stack of bricks created from clay and the dust of more than 500 individuals. Adorning the wall opposite the work is a list of ‘Dust Donators’ and what they believe was contained in the dust they offered to the artist. Amongst the list are sweet wrappers, a ceramic cast of teeth and a spider’s carcass. Donators include the House of Lords, House of Commons and Royal Albert Hall.
Life in Glasgow in 1867 is depicted in The Hospital. An insight into the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, this section of the exhibition could possibly be seen as the cleanest of the lot. With a primary purpose of modern healthcare being a clean, safe environment for care, it seems 19th century healthcare maintained the same standards.
A nurse’s uniform from the latter quarter of the century is displayed. It’s still in largely pristine condition, as the white fabric has been sterilized.
As for the video piece of Raw Material Washing Hands (Bruce Nauman, 1996), it seems oddly OCD. A stark contrast to the embracing of dirt elsewhere, the two sets of hands are determined to rid themselves of any unclean substances.
The Museum section offers a look into 1930s Dresden. Perhaps not the greatest advert for tourism – except for medical tourism – it highlights the big attraction of the world’s first Internal Hygiene Exhibition. Thrilling stuff for some, but it seems a little dull for the average visitor. Adverts from ODOL mouthwash and the actual exhibition are on display as well as less inviting painted wax models of a mouth ulcer and a tuberculosis-affected hand.
It’s ‘Gläserne Fram’ that is the standout exhibit in this section. A 1980 recreation of the original 1930 glass model of the human body, it uses 12,000 metres of coloured wire to represent the nerves system.
Present day life in New Delhi and Kolkata is put under the microscope in The Community. A look at the inadequate sewage systems in the area, Q2P, a projected video by Paromita Vohra, looks at the differences between facilities available for men and women in the large Indian cities.
The only piece offering any sort of aroma is ‘5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International’. The smell is nowhere near as extreme as expected but the seemingly solid slabs of human waste still offer a small stink – whether its psychological or a reality remains to be seen.
The final section of the exhibition provides a look into the future, to 2030 in fact. The Land displays images and videos of Staten Island – previously home to the world’s largest municipal landfill site. Vast landscapes of rubbish give visitors an idea of the scale of the site, which was viewable from space and three times as large as Central Park. The plan is for the area to be transformed within the next 20 years to create a green space open to the public for hiking, kayaking and horse riding amongst other outdoors activities.
Ending with this plan for the future the exhibition leaves visitors questioning the very thing they came in to explore. Can dirt really be seen as beauty?
Sure, history has changed perceptions of dirt, but will it ever be appreciated as a beautiful, coveted thing? The exhibits certainly don’t all seem to fall under the category of ‘artwork’, but maybe there are a few – in particular Collis’ ‘Waltzer’ – that offer something enjoyable for the eye.
An art exhibition this isn’t, but it’s certainly something to make you think. Expect to be greeted with poo – not Picasso – and then rejoice in leaving the exhibition desperate to wash your hands.
Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life runs until 31 August.
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