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Talking Dirty About Art and Design

In February 2012, the Museum opened the exhibition Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design. Organized by then William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator David McFadden, the exhibition brought together a global roster of artists working with humble and discarded materials and also presented “live” installations in which visitors became part of the transient nature of the artists’ creations. In this previously published essay, McFadden tells how artists have long found beauty in the detritus of life.

The exhibition Swept Away examines the ways in which artists and designers are transforming overlooked and discarded materials, the very detritus of life, into works of beauty and meaning. This isn’t a new phenomenon. There is an ancient and distinguished history regarding the ritual use of dirt, sand, and powdered pigments to illuminate states of the spirit. Think of Tibetan sand mandalas used for purification, or the Navajo sand paintings created for healing, or Aboriginal Australian sand compositions, assembled to record a specific time, place, and identity. Importantly, in all these cultures, the works are intended to have a specific lifespan. Once completed, they have achieved their purpose and are eradicated; the materials are dispersed. This process is as important as the composition to the work’s effectiveness.

There is, too, the revered Japanese tradition of using sand and other natural materials to make miniature landscapes, known as bonseki, on lacquered trays, which are intended to serve as meditations on the natural world. In Europe, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, possibly inspired by this tradition, members of the nobility engaged artists to create tabletop paintings of landscapes, flowers, and other scenes, using variously colored sands, powdered minerals and stones, and sugar. These “table deckers,” and their creations, referred to as marmotinto (painting with sand), were highly sought after by European and British royalty. It was not until the 19th century that this tradition of creating sand decorations was transformed from an elite entertainment into a pastime for a newly democratized middle class. Travel-savvy handcrafters and amateur artists used colored sands they had gathered or purchased from such richly diverse sites as Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight (known for its 21 sand varieties) to make charming landscapes, architectural scenes, and still lifes. In the second half of the 19th century, one of the most famous of these sand artists, Andrew Clemens of Dubuque, Iowa, layered sand in repurposed glass bottles to create detailed portraits of George Washington and other famous personages, as well as intricate pictures of sailing ships, flowers, and other subjects. A twenty-first century variation of this tradition is seen in the work of Jim Dingilian, whose found bottles, featured in Swept Away, contain shadowy landscapes and scenes scratched through layers of smoke residue on the glass.

It is through dust that Swept Away artist Paul Hazelton poignantly depicts time and its passing. He describes his unusual material “as traces of time reappropriated to unexpected and fated destinies.” The cultural associations between time, dust, and dirt are explored in a series of works by architectural historian/conservator/artist Jorge Otero-Pailos. In 2008, he used a latex-based medium to capture the dust that had been settling for centuries on a building in Bolzano, Italy. He peeled away the layer once the medium had set and displayed it as an architectural sculpture. The astonishing and provocative work, titled The Ethics of Dust, a reference to John Ruskin’s 1865 essay of the same title, raised important questions about the ethics of the conservation (read “cleaning”) of historical structures—beyond issues of preservation—by removing what the artist succinctly defines as a “time stain.”

The value of any material is in its potential to be transformed by the mind and hands of an artist or designer. It is the intimate knowledge and recognition of a material’s possibilities that bring any medium to life. In their exceptional works, and drawing upon a rich heritage of creativity in the use of alternative materials, the artists in Swept Away reiterate and underscore the ways in which materials, methods, and meaning are inextricably knitted together. They offer insights into the multilayered cultural associations we have with dust, ashes, and dirt, while also providing striking visual manifestations of a strange, often unsettling beauty to be found in these overlooked, discarded, even undesirable, and certainly unavoidable by-products of life.

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