Grit, grime, grunge; stain, soil and stink. These are the unlikely muses of the Wellcome Collection’s most recent foray into the history of science as a social and aesthetic fact. DIRT: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life is a disgusting exhibition. Mixing contemporary art with cultural and scientific history, Dirt takes the form of a tour through a series of filthy locations, from 17th century Holland to New York in 2030, Dirt shows us just how ambivalent our attempts to stay above the muck really are.
Dirt is no cheap-shot horror show, intended to excite the public into a frenzy of hand washing with observations about the ecosystems of bacteria that thrive on your keyboard. Never didactic, but rather subtle and questioning, the Wellcome Trust have a knack for bringing to light engaging and revealing artefacts that tend, unfortunately, to remain buried in the archive (or, more appropriately, under the pile of s**t that all too often passes for public engagement with science).
Dirt achieves a rare thing: an exhibition that really makes you look at things differently. Indeed, the way we see is a central theme in an exhibition that takes the anthropologist Mary Douglas observation that “there is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder” as its leitmotif.
Beginning in Delft at height of what the Dutch call the Golden Age, Dirt shows us the modern invention of dirt as at once a scientific, as well as deeply cultural object, laced with social and religious meaning.
In one engraving by Antonie Weirix c. 1600, a young Christ-figure vigorously sweeps a writhing stream of serpents across the threshold of a heart-shaped house. The message is clear: a clean home, a pure heart. A series of domestic scenes by Pieter de Hooch from around mid-century, oils of that glowing quality peculiar to the Dutch and Flemish painters of the period, illustrate an alarming passion for scrubbing, burnishing and sweeping. With obsessive attention to the rituals of the housekeeper, cleanliness in Protestant Europe was installed as a moral virtue.
It was also in Delft at this time that a draper named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek first looked through his hand-held lens at some scrapings of “batter” from his own teeth and beheld the microscopic world of bacteria. In so doing, these “little animals” began the process of translating the sacred into the scientific and initiated the modern narrative of rational hygiene.
Dirt proceeds to examine the manifold cultural meanings and uses of filth. In Joseph Lister’s Glasgow Infirmary in the 1860s for instance, the scientization of grime takes the form of the first antiseptic regime in a hospital environment. The white of a nurse’s coat however signified cleanliness and purity before the germ theory was adopted, and continued to do so even once it had.
Alongside the period art, text and document, Dirt is also peppered with contemporary modern pieces that ask us to reflect on our changing relationship to dirt. For instance, in Lister’s infirmary, Bruce Naumann’s (1996) work “Raw Material” endlessly loops compulsive soapy hands wringing themselves out above a small basin. Elements from Angela Parker’s (2007) work “Breathing In”, which included collecting air samples from the world’s most polluted place – Linfen in China – are also on display.
In 1930s Germany, we see the turning of public hygiene initiatives into the service of eugenics. By finding and expunging genetic ‘impurities’, Nazi racial science made dirt into a powerful political agent and a marker for socially undesirable groups.
This theme continues in the exhibitions only non-Western location: urban India in 2011, where impossible sewage systems and a long history of cultural exclusivity combine. There, lower-caste Dalits, the “broken people”, find employment by cleaning up the faeces of others’ with their hands. To depict this, a series of crates made out of human waste by the people of Sulabh line the room.
There is also a Dionysian side to human relationships with dirt too. Rites of fertility govern our dealings with dirt as much as do rituals of death and antiseptic. Cycles of death and rebirth often feature dirt: as form develops from the inchoate, so life grows out of a messy reality. While many in London were dying of cholera spread by the city’s foul drainage system, Farmer’s Magazine wrote in 1860 of the “bright and glittering heaps of sovereigns” the sewers would yield if realised as compost.
Surrounded by forensic maps tracking the spread of the disease through Soho, a pile of bricks made by combining samples of dirt donated by thousands of present day Londoners asks one to think about life as a collective process involving the transformation of dust into structured compositions, like buildings or organic beings. This is Serena Korda’s (2011) “Laid to Rest”, an especially commissioned piece inspired by the Victorian dust heaps that provided employment, spread disease and, in many cases, were mixed with clay in order to make the bricks that built much of London.
This theme is consummated in a vision of the future: Staten Island, 2030. Fresh Kills, the world’s largest landfill, is re-imagined in photography and computer generated imagery as a space transformed from a symbol of environmental and social degradation into a public park. Rejuvenated, a site that in the mid-1980s was receiving over 29 000 tons of rubbish a day, returns as an ecologically balanced communal space.
After my visit to Dirt, the white tiles that protect our bathrooms and kitchens no longer look quite the same to me. Used to show up dirt and make it easy to clean, they are also, like us, products of dirt, of refined clay. They are also the ancestors of Delftware, the famous white and blue decorated pottery of Holland that once lined the washstands of the pious. Far from being a purely rational exercise in domestic hygiene, they are also imbued with deep cultural symbolisms.
Leaving Dirt, one can’t help dwelling on the life of dirt as a metaphor for both scientific and artistic creation. Neither is free from their cultural context, and both require dexterity and imagination as they try to carve their wares out from an amorphous background of forms and ideas. That dirt may strike us as gross is really an achievement, shaped by the dual activity of cultural life and science, not a given.
24 March – 31 August 2011
183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE England
The Wellcome Collection is a part of Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical charity. The Collection is also home to a library specialising in the history of biology and medicine, and the fascinating and bizarre permanent collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, inveterate traveller collector of all things medical. It is a must-visit destination, as their strap line puts it, for the “incurably curious”.