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Dust may be a conservator’s burden, but it’s also a positive mess for a museum. Because the more dust there is, the more visitors there are, and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) they arrive in the millions each year, along with clothing fibers, skin flakes, and other dusty bits.
“At MoMA it’s literally an intermingling of different visitors from around the world,” says artist Nina Katchadourian of the MoMA dust, on her new “Dust Gathering” audio guide. You can listen to it with a MoMA audio guide device, on- or off-site via MoMA’s website, or through the museum’s mobile app. The piece was created through the Artists Experiment initiative of MoMA’s Department of Education.
At one point in the audio guide, Katchadourian gazes through a microscope with Ellen Davis, a graduate intern in paintings conservation. Davis noticed all the dust in the museum was a consistent gray, yet looking closer revealed a rainbow of colors. “There are so many people in this museum and they’re all different, they’re all wearing something different,” Davis says.
Katchadourian spent two years exploring this seemingly mundane aspect of the museum, although she didn’t initially set out to make a dust tour. Through speaking with staff from across curatorial and building departments, visiting underground air systems, and witnessing “extreme dustings,” she discovered the huge role of the tiny dust in the institution.
“The goal was to think about dust in both the highest and the lowest sense, as both a material that you had to contend with and get rid of, and in most the metaphorical and philosophical sense as a material that reminds us of our own mortality,” Katchadourian told Hyperallergic. “And people would touch on both of those no matter what their job.”
She often works with unexpected connections in everyday objects, whether the recent installation of lawn signs for US presidential losers at the Lefferts Homestead in Brooklyn, or rearranging bookshelves into statements. She explained that growing up she wanted to work in radio, so “Dust Gathering” was a sort of return to that passion. The audio tour is about 30 minutes, honed from over 15 hours of interviews, including with conservators dealing with MoMA’s most difficult dusts, such as the Bell-47D1 Helicopter suspended over the stairs or the wooden “Socrates” (1922) by Constantin Brâncuși, and with building operations staff who journey to the air handling units under the lobby.
“Dust Gathering” transports visitors into these moments with stops around the museum. One is the site that inspired the project: a very dusty ledge in a fourth floor gallery overlooking the atrium. To clean it, every three months two staff members ride up on a lift.
“The dusty ledge just became this point of fascination that I returned to every time I went back to the museum,” she said. “I was standing there thinking of why it is so interesting to me. Every person I had been talking to had a connection to dust, and you could talk about their jobs with dust as a topic.”
While staring at these dust bunnies in a museum characterized by its clean and stark white walls, you might wonder why you’re not spending time with the Eva Hesse sculptures to your right (as will your fellow museum goers, who may congregate around the ledge out of magnetic curiosity). However, this stop, like all those on the guide, encourages a deeper understanding of MoMA.
“My feeling of that building and that museum has shifted profoundly working on that project,” she stated. “It’s weird to go there and feel a domestic sense of that building now. It’s brought it down to Earth in a strange way for me. I always found MoMA intimidating and kind of a temple. Something about now knowing the people who work there, and the very humble ways that the museum functions, has changed a lot for me.”
MoMA’s dustiest place is a wall of white slats right behind the audio desk, and Katchadourian invites listeners to run a finger on the vent, gathering the grimy dust. “In a very direct sense, we all come together in dust,” she says on the guide. In this perceived nuisance, there is a reminder of our own shared transience, and how art and museums are monuments to this constant accumulation of time and movement.
Dust Gathering: An Audio+Experience by Nina Katchadourian continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through April 21, 2017.