Dust, decay, and ash—to confront the remnants of destructive acts is to confront our own inevitabilites. The burdens of history and knowledge demand a grim grammar for these materials, their very presence indicates nothingness and everything.
In Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, currently at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, dust and ash are given a forum in which to speak as artistic material. When framed by thoughtful artistic practices, remnants and detritus of existence are allowed to speak beyond their purest purposes of nothingness and the physical embodiment of nothingness.
One of the first works one encounters upon entering the exhibition is not immediately decipherable, embodying what appear to be grape stems on a low white platform on the gallery floor. On closer inspection, the shapes of the grape stems have been drawn in black sand. The artist uses sand, a physical material emobodying earth’s infinitudes, to draw a very small selection of natural phenomena, uncontrollable and unduplicable.There will never be two grape stems exactly alike, just as all the grains of sand in the work could never be counted. The entire exercise brings to mind the Kabbalist view of human existence: that we are nothing but grains on a single mustard seed in an endless field of mustard flowers.
Many of the works in Swept Away have a similar effect, provoking the viewer to contemplate the infinite and the secured knowledge of our demise in this unending world. These revelations are necessarily disquieting, and the exhibition is best approached with a comfort in existentialist perspectives. For those who cannot contemplate the dialogue between existence and essence, the exhibition will lack the most beautiful stanzas of its inherent poetry.
In her work The Smog Collector, Kim Abeles presents a table and chairs, the settings all in place for a meal. The plates are set, decorated with what look like stencils of graphite showing the flatware and food. But, after reading the label, the viewer realizes that the marks on the white surfaces are not graphite—the artist put the white place settings on the roof of her Los Angeles studio with stencils attached to their surfaces. She then let the plates and cloths sit in the smoggy air until they abosorbed the (un)natural dyes of pollution. Realizing that the artist made these dark and lasting artistic marks with the polluted air that some millions of people breath every day is disquieting and absolutely arresting. In the ideal world in which we eat what we can grow ourselves, this would be the air that nourishes our fruits and vegetables that would end up on our tables in our homes. Looking at The Smog Collector, I thought about my own Los Angeles childhood. I remembered my mother’s vegetable patch in the back garden (a radical notion for an early nineties Angeleno) and the little carrots which grew in tidy rows. I remember sneakily eating the carrots before my mother had the chance to pull them out of the ground, savoring the most innocent of garden crimes. Abeles’ work clutched my chest, reminding me of the filthy glory of eating a Nichols Canyon Carrot. Imagine the purest idea of painting with pollution, which is by its very nature a hideous and fascinating proposition.
Many other works in the exhibition are equally smart and disturbing. A highlight is a quilt by Julie Parker made from felted dryer lint. Lint is, by its very nature, a strange material. It is never intentionally produced, yet its often made as a natural byproduct of living with fabric. We are surrounded by fabrics from morning til night. We wake up in bed of soft linens, swaddled in flannel, silk, cotton, or wool. When we eat breakfast, we clean up messes with rags and eat over mats and cloths. We sit on upholstered bus seats, spend the day wasting in ergonomic padded task chairs. We open curtains, we take off scarves, we put on coats, we use hand towels. We wipe our hands dry on our pants (despite being told not to), and few things feel nicer at the end of a long day than collapsing on a couch. Fabric is the fabric of our lives. So when we wash and dry these things, lint (a familiar byproduct of drying soft material in a tumble dryer) becomes evidence of all of these actions. Lint is a physical story of contact with the body—it contains hair, fluff, the fuzz we pick up on the bus or in the library. As a material it isn’t usually imbued with artistic license, though Parker’s quilt, fashioned from countless squares of tidily organized lint specimens, frames human detritus as something which produces a tangible product.
The Museum of Arts and Design is one of the bravest exhibitioning institutions today. Since moving to its new home in Columbus Circle in 2008, the MAD has consistently produced exhibitions which not only question the nature of materials and form, but also those braver exhibitons which suggest a speculation about the very definition of materials. Last year, the MAD exhibition "Dead or Alive" investigated the boundaries for the use of biological materials in art making and the nature of work which crosses said limits. In Swept Away, the MAD showcases the work of artists who use the immaterial as the material core of their practice. The theme of material is consistent and is a core interest throughout the MAD exhibitions program, though with this venture I wonder how they will ever top themselves. After beautifully and magically bringing toegther so many physical expressions of the nature of dust, what materials are left? With a collecting emphasis in glass arts, the MAD already has a relationship to fire and air. Perhaps water, as the remaining natural elements unexplored by the MAD curators, will make itself known in a future provocative exhibiton.