Phoebe Cummings, “Flora (detail)” (2010), unfired clay. (Photo by Sylvain Deleu)

The art in Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) has some of the best material lists I’ve ever seen: city dust and pencil on silk; soot on organic cotton canvas; dryer lint and cotton; blown glass and ash from burned books. It’s label text that borders on poetry. Luckily, that ephemeral charm is in much of the work itself, art that goes beyond the expected statements on the passage of time and death, and explores more surprising aspects of our relationships with these cast off particulates.

Of course, being an exhibit focused on fugitive materials, there is much celebration of momentary art, highlighted by 13 of the 34 works that were created specifically for MAD, and may not exist after. The most elegant is Phoebe Cummings’ “The Delusion of Grandeur” (2012), built from raw earth and wood. (A similar work is shown here, and you can see Cummings creating “The Delusion of Grandeur” in this video produced by MAD.) She compares the temporary nature of the opulent vase full of dusty, grey flowers to a dance or performance piece, and how the world right now is living in a state of fragility that could collapse.

Catherine Bertola, “The Property of Two Gentlemen” (2006), collected household dust, glue, two Georgian chairs with brass plaques. (Photo by Douglas Atfield)

Catherine Bertola also has an installation that has a lifespan the length of Swept Away. “Unfurling Splendor,” similar to her “The Property of Two Gentlemen” (2006) shown above, has dust from the museum’s floor stenciled with glue in an ornate wallpaper on the white gallery wall. If you are squeamish about dirt and the stray hairs that make their way into it, don’t look too close.

Kim Abeles, “Steak Dinner in 12 Days of Smog” (2011), smog (particulate matter), currency, porcelain plate. (Photo by Ken Marchionno)

The most interesting art in Swept Away is unpleasant, not in its appearance, but in how it makes you think of just how dirty our world is. For “Steak Dinner in 12 Days of Smog” (2011), Kim Abeles left stencils on a complete dinner set on her roof in LA, for a time ranging from four days to a month. All were marked with ghostly images from the accumulation of smog.

Alexandre Orion has the opposite process in his “Ossario-Art Less Pollution,” a video piece documenting the artist cleaning the soot off a traffic tunnel in São Paulo, Brazil, into the image of 3,500 skulls, a reminder, he says, of the harmful pollution entering our lungs. Police were called on Orion and the city cleaned off the ossuary, though not the whole tunnel, caring more about removing the street art that was a form of cleaning than removing the soot. Orion then used the soot-covered rags from his skull projects to make a series of works on canvas called “The Prize” that are shown in Swept Away.

Glithero, “Still from ‘Burn Burn Burn'” (2007), video featuring wood and flammable paint (Image courtesy of the artists)

It seems obligatory that an exhibit about transient art would include Andy Goldsworthy, who is well-known for building temporary sculptures out of natural objects, and Swept Away has the series “Bones/Sand/Ball/Tide” (2008). In it, a ball of dirt is eroded by waves, slowly revealing a pile of animal bones until just ribs are poking up from the surf. There is also a familiar presence with Cai Guo-Qiang and his “Video of Black Ceremonies,” where 8,300 black smoke shells fitted with computer chips explode in sudden flocks of ash, although I felt like his gun powder pieces that were part of his Guggenheim show would have had more in common with the rest of the more materials-focused exhibit.

Jim Dingilian, “Not the Time” (2009), smoke, glass bottle (Image courtesy of the artist)

The most engaging video works were Glithero’s “Burn, Burn, Burn” (2007) and “Fire Drawings” (2012), where a flame creeped along flammable paint, leaving a scorched trail. It reminded me of another work in Swept Away: Antonio Riello’s “Ashes to Ashes” (2009), where the artist had burned books with personal resonance and collected the ashes in glass chalices, labeled with dates stating when and where the book was first published and when and where it was burned, all meeting their end in Bassano, Italy, where Riello works. Both Glithero’s and Riello’s works were transforming one piece of art into flames and then ash, with the resulting coarse material simultaneously the art and the remembrance of the art.

During the exhibit’s run at MAD, there will be a series of “Swept Away Projects” where artists will create temporary works in the museum. German artist Elvira Wersche will work on a sand and earth floor painting that dancers will erase, Croatian artist Igor Eškinja will make a “Dust Carpet” that will cover the floor with skin cells, hair, clothing fibers and other dust collected from MAD, and British art Linda Florence will cover MAD Project’s gallery floor with a chalk pattern that will, like Werche’s floor painting, be swept away by the feet of dancers. This direct interaction between the audience and the art completes the life-cycle of the ephemeral materials, as all this dust, dirt and ash comes from us, from the tiny scrapes of skin and loose hairs or threads from our clothes, and also is constantly entering us, as we breathe in the invisible matter filling the urban air.

Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Columbus Circle, Manhattan) through August 12, 2012.  

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

3 replies on “Beautiful Dirt”

    1. Thanks Anne! Really interesting essay, too, with a lot of great imagery. (Petah Coyne is a great artist of the ephemeral, dirty things.) The relationship we have with dirt seems like an endless avenue for art, and one I hadn’t really thought of before the Swept Away show, even though it seems so obvious as a common material.

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