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Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design

Published on
April 26

In the sleek, modern environment of the Museum of Arts and Design, the exhibit Swept Away provides a fascinating and welcome contrast. Comprising works made with dust and dirt as their primary components, artists from various media and backgrounds provided a refreshingly diverse array of perspectives on this most elemental yet often dismissed material.

Death Duster by Paul HazeltonRunning throughout the exhibit is the idea of creative destruction. A phrase so often applied to the principals of capitalism, I couldn’t help applying the words in a more literal sense to certain works within the exhibit. The term came to mind when looking at Maskull Lasserre’s Murder, a sculpture installation that featured burnt pieces of wood in the shape of birds, perched randomly around one corner of the room, positioned as if they were pecking crumbs, also made from small charred wood pieces. It was fascinating to see material that was technically “dead” looking so animated. Birds were perched in different positions and at different heights – some feeding on the “crumbs” littering the floor, others watching you furtively from above. The title evoked the act of destruction that Lasserre had committed by burning the tree, as well as raised questions about what this strategically placed flock of birds could be doing.

Andy Goldsworthy’sBones/Sand/Ball/Tide evokes similar themes in a completely different way. A series of photographs taken in time-lapse, this work depicts the destruction of a large ball of sand that is broken apart by repeated washings of waves as the ocean’s tide rises. As the ball of sand breaks down, a set of bleached bones are revealed within it, calling to mind again the past life of the object now used in creating the artistic work.

Yet another fascinating aspect of the exhibit is the number of artists who use the medium to experiment with the human form. Tracing the Origin byCui Fei uses loose, dark colored sand to depict Chinese characters on a smooth, white surface on the floor. The origins of many Chinese characters are based in the human form – of people making certain movements and gestures to depict meaning. Fei uses the sand to examine the relationships between humans and nature through these characters, and has intentionally not affixed the sand to the canvas, intending to sweep it away upon the closing of the exhibit. This commitment to impermanence evokes the ephemeral and constantly changing nature of language and communication, and also juxtaposes the comparatively short time living creatures have to make an impression on the earth as a whole.

The fascinatingly creepy piece Death Duster, by Paul Hazelton is a three dimensional representation of a human skull, constructed completely from household dust and human hair. In the accompanying plaque, Hazelton provides us with some context for the work, describing the obsession with cleanliness that was pervasive in his childhood home. “Making art became an act of defiance, a subversion of cleanliness,” he explains. It seems fitting that Hazelton the thing he was taught to compulsively avoid as material for a sort of sculpture, in which the dust as well as the human form becomes immortalized.

In thinking about the fact that household dust is largely made up of dead skin cells, it seemed playfully ironic that dead pieces of a living human body were gathered and re-positioned into a depiction of a skeleton. Indeed, all dust and dirt contains decomposed elements of various living things. Many of the artists’ works in this exhibit seem to be riffing on the cycle of creation and destruction, by recreating the human form using the materials we often associate with the end of things. And in that way, this exhibit of contemporary art seems timeless, rooting itself in the eternal contemplation of life and death.

Swept Away is showing through August 5th at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, NYC. Admission is FREE with your student CUID through the Passport to NY Program.