Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life


of an Exhibition

by Ethan Lasser

Published on April 06, 2011

  • Description:

    The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life
    Ethan W. Lasser, Chipstone Foundation

    What is the common thread that weaves together paintings of Dutch interiors, medical artefacts and Nazi propaganda? What substance turns up in the writing about surgery in nineteenth-century Scotland, photographs about class conflict in contemporary India, and recent videos about the future of Staten Island?

    The answer is Dirt.

    Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, an engaging new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London considers the multifaceted meanings ascribed to the “dust, excrement, rubbish and soil” that populates everyday life. Spanning from late-seventeenth Holland to the Staten Island of the future, the show marshals paintings, prints and book illustrations, as well as medical artefacts and scientific specimens from the Wellcome collection to explore shifts in the cultural understanding of dirt.
    The exhibition shows that one set of ideas about dirt has remained constant, across space and time. As excrement, waste and remains, dirt suggests death and impurity, but as the soil that sustains us, it suggests life and regeneration.

    The exhibition is divided into six case studies. Each focuses on a particular place and time. The first three galleries consider key points in the scientific understanding of dirt. The opening of the installation juxtaposes the obsession with cleanliness in late-seventeenth century Delft with the discovery of bacteria and the realization that the dirt Dutch women swept out of their homes was in fact too small to be swept. From Delft, the exhibition skips a century to the cholera epidemic in mid-nineteenth century London and the association of dirt with disease. Here, some of the most eccentric artefacts in the Wellcome collection are on view: a glass vial containing fluid from a cholera victim, charts displaying cold, mathematical statistics on cholera deaths; and an image juxtaposing a healthy, rosy-cheeked woman with the green, pallid color her face assumed three hours after she was infected with the virus. These artefacts make the next case study, which considers the introduction of antiseptic surgical tools in Scotland seem tame, even though it displays images of gangrene and amputation.

    From science, the exhibition moves to matters of race, class and ideology. The most provocative case study focuses on the Dresden Museum of Hygiene, which Hitler co-opted to legitimate his “science of racial hygiene.” Nazi propaganda posters and films represent a vicious new discourse that described non-Aryan races as “impure.” A poignant 1938 photograph depicts a group of Viennese Jews scrubbing the sidewalk as Nazi guards and supporters look on. The next room suggests we have not come as far from this dark history as we may think. Videos and photographs chronicle the life of the Indian “untouchables” tasked with cleaning human waste from New Delhi latrines, a vestige of the Hindu caste system.

    The exhibition ends on a more upbeat note with a vision for the future of the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill. This vast mound of trash is slated to become a public park. As the label text points out, the dirt that once suggested waste and pollution is being reimagined as a symbol of renewal and hope.

    This exhibition has many strengths. The curators brought together a range of materials to open insight into what seems (at least before visiting the show) like the most mundane and straightforward of substances; they wove together a narrative that engaged with science, culture and politics, and they drew on a range of disciplines to cover three hundred years of human history. But the most striking part of the show for me, as an art museum curator, was its organization.

    Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life illustrates the merits of the case study approach over the grand, historical survey. Moving through the exhibition, one had the sense of sitting back with a good book of short stories. The show managed to cover more than three hundred years of human history, but it felt provocative and suggestive rather than academic and burdensome. The case studies offered a sense of the multifaceted significance of dirt, rather than an encyclopaedic chronicle of this significance. One left with more questions than answers, which is, to my mind at least, the mark of a great exhibition.

    Much can also be learned from the physical lay-out of the show. The galleries had one of the most thoughtful and well-composed rhythms I’ve ever experience in a museum. A single gallery was devoted to each case-study. In between, small spaces displayed work by contemporary artists, including a window covered in dirt by James Croak and a set of bricks assembled of collected dust by Serena Korda. These interventions were striking in their own right, and helped connect the historical stories on view to the present. At the same time, they offered a chance to pause, reflect and gather energy before turning the corner and moving into the next case study.

    If you are in London, this show if worth a visit. You’ll leave with new questions about dirt, and you may just pick up a few new ideas about curating.

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