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5 June 2011

May's Art book of the month: 'Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life'

May's art book of the month is quite simply, filthy. 'Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life' is the accompanying book to the exhibition of the same name at the Wellcome Collection on Euston road, London. One of my friends, knowing I'm a keen fan of anything banal, domestic and everyday recommended that I see this exhibition, especially since I'd recently at the time just come back from a trip to Paris where I went on a tour of the sewers there. I don't quite know exactly what it is, why the recent fascination with sewage, waste, dirt and water closets? Maybe its from an ever increasing drawing realisation of how much 'stuff' there actually is in the world. That and I find the whole thing quite funny too, I mean who wouldn't want to visit the sewers then followed by a trip to the Louvre without seeing some sort of irony in that! Perhaps we take art too seriously most of the time, and that's why its good to every once and a while be reminded of something really practical, that at first seems kind of silly or bizarre but is actually a necessity and says a lot about human ingenuity and innovativeness. Anyway, whatever my reasons, my curiosity led me to going to see this exhibition and read the catalogue which is my book of the month for May.
Firstly, what made the exhibition so great was it covered a broad range of 'dirty' places and themes within what was quite a small overall exhibition. From the home to the street, the hospital, the community and the land: the theme of dirt was explored in these different contexts. What does 'dirt' actually mean, is one of the key questions the book/exhibition seeks to answer,

'Dirt, is a term used to encompass dust, excrement, rubbish, bacteria, and soil. It is also used as a metaphor to denote social, cultural or ethnic outsiders. Humans like all living organisms are efficient generators of dirt, which may partly explain why dirt can provoke visceral fear or disgust. Ultimately, the deterioration of our own bodies is the most profound and unsettling reminder of how everything, in the end disintegrates.'

The book continues and describes the ways in which science has been used to explore and form what our are modern day conceptions of cleanliness and hygiene are, how engineering and creative means of problem solving led to our sewer system, how we organize ourselves and how waste on a global/environmental scale continue to affect our planet and how dirt can appear magical in the way in which crops grow from soil and strains of antibiotics have been discovered in sewage. When it comes down to it, from a speck of dust you can end up talking about an awful lot! Its particularly good as well because it doesn't just focus on the West and looks at our human relationship with dirt from other countries, Peking and India to name a few. The book itself is made up of six essays all of which are backed up with lots of photos of the artifacts, images and artworks in the exhibition. The latter an important point to mention as a nice touch to the exhibition was the presence of some contemporary artworks in amongst the museum collection. For example a normal everyday broom stands propped in the corner of the gallery and as it turns out on closer inspection is actually a Susan Collis and all the detail of splashes of paint are actually mother of pearl set into the broom handle. Other work such as 'Raw material' a video showing a pair of hands being obsessively washed by Bruce Nauman and an installation of a Breman carpet made from dust on the floor of the gallery by Igor Eskinja add to the story telling and challenge our perceptions of dirt. Of course the book wouldn't be complete without references to Piero Manzoni's 'Artist's Shit' in a can and our old favourite, Duchamp's 'Fountain. For the environmentalists among you the book/show also features work by Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her project with the New York sanitation department.

Like all good books should probably have in them somewhere is that this one has a comic book in the middle, how cool! Obviously, its in there deliberately as the story is about a cartoonist whose art and creativity was aided by being surrounded in junk and dirt, which leads me onto my next point that ultimately at the end of reading this book, if you didn't already, you come to accept the fact that dirt in all its forms, contexts and meanings is a part of what makes us human. Whether you like it or not it is also vital to our existence. In terms of creativity and art, some would argue that a degree of mess is essential in order for anything creative to be generated at all? Some of the moral implications, however, like how it affects our environment are also addressed, but, as is very often the case its the debate and realisation that balance is what is needed, that makes this an interesting and eyeopening journey to read. The book marries with the exhibition very well but actually takes it a lot further and the essays, by six different authors from historians to anthropologists looking deeper into some of the history and politics surrounding the themes mentioned above. An interesting and unusual exhibition and an equally informed and good record of the show in the book. Sure, its not exactly the sewers meets the Louvre like what I experienced before, but in its wit and charm of having art and artifacts together its not entirely dissimilar either. I'm off now to go make some mess! I don't think anyone could hardly complain. So, what are you waiting for? Wash your hands and immerse yourself into the grimey, fascinating book on dirt!

You can still visit the exhibition too until August 31st, see website below for more details:

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