We are dust (or so we are told), and to dust we shall return. We spend the years that intervene combating dirt, but also creating it; we slough off flecks of dead skin that commingle with the grit, soot, fluff, soil, ash, ordure and other detritus that surrounds us. Even the name we give to our planet is a synonym for dirt. Muck is a memento mori, piling up like the sands of the hourglass, and in its capacity to breed contagion it may well hasten us towards that dreaded end.

This, then, is a veritable parade of filth. It casts its eye over such feculent locations as a New York tip, Indian public toilets and the putrescence of Victorian Glasgow and Soho, but also – being a show at the Wellcome Collection – considers medical science’s efforts to overcome such contamination. In the 17th century, for example, the Dutch were renowned throughout Europe for their preoccupation with hygiene – those Pieter de Hooch studies of fastidiously sweeping housewives were not merely genre paintings, but an embodiment of a national obsession. The quest for cleanliness gave rise to the understated delights of Delftware (easy to wipe clean), and to the great public-sanitation projects of the Victorian age, but also, more disturbingly, to the mentality embodied by the exhibits dealing with the Hygiene Museum of 1930s Germany, an era when theories of purity and cleansing were taken to horrific extremes.

Perhaps as a reaction against the sterility of thought that excessive hygiene can encourage, in recent years artists have dabbled with dirt as a medium. Igor Eskinja, for instance, traces out the pattern of a Persian carpet on the floor using nothing more than domestic sweepings, while James Croak sculpts sash windows from compacted filth. And Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s masterful White Trash sculpture, in which an artfully lit pile of rubbish creates the silhouette of a pair of reclining bon viveurs, is a miniature echo of the Fresh Kills dump on Staten Island. These fetid dunes of landfill, which exceed the Statue of Liberty in height, are now being reworked into a public park – breeding lilacs out of the dead land.

And that, maybe, is why dirt is not all bad. It represents decay, but also renewal. Both ash and manure make excellent fertiliser. And where there’s muck, there’s brass. The great dust heap of King’s Cross – described by Dickens as a “suburban Sahara” – was a mountainous eyesore, but also a source of livelihood for the scavengers who would ferret through the filth in search of saleable cast-offs. Even the dirt itself was valuable, being taken away to be baked into bricks; parts of London are literally built out of the city’s own waste. The artist Serena Korda pays homage to this quintessence of dust in Laid to Rest, a special commission in which she has made 500 bricks out of particulate matter donated by businesses around London. At the end of the show, these bricks will be symbolically buried. Dust to dust.

First published in World of Interiors issue 343. Reproduced with permission.

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