Dirt, dust, and sand form the perfect antithesis to the “white box” aesthetic. They illustrate the passage of time, the existence of history, and the absence of light. They offer proof of violence and destruction, collect marks, hide things, form deceptions. Yet they are powerless against wind, water, detergent, and our cultural conception of their negligible value. Part of a series of exhibitions that examine the prowess of “non-traditional” materials, the artworks in Swept Away at the Museum of Arts and Design illustrate loss, memory, death, and the footprints of human existence in both confrontational and intimate ways.
“The goal has been to establish a niche in the contemporary art scene by focusing on the transformational power of making things, in which materials take on a new relevance for artists and for audiences,” said Chief Curator David McFadden. “Our guiding principle is that we no longer get into any debates about what is art, what is craft, what is design. We focus entirely on the quality of concept and quality of execution, mixing works from many different genres.” Indeed, the show’s roster—from Andy Goldsworthy and Vik Muniz to Phoebe Cummings, Jim Dingilian and Alexandre Orion—includes artists from a wide range of backgrounds brought together by a collective interest in the ephemeral nature of dust.
Alexandre Orion, Ossário, 2006-2011. Courtesy the artist; Foley Gallery, New York
Alexandre Orion’s video depicts the artist creating “reverse graffiti” in soot-covered tunnels in São Paulo; the blackened walls become a field of skulls, almost resembling a ghastly mass grave. The video ends dramatically with the police stopping the artist and hosing down his work. Orion’s method makes it impossible to clean up his “graffiti” without, well, cleaning, and the skulls fade into drips as the walls get drenched and polished, ready for the next round of soot to accumulate.
Unlike the famous Spiral Jetty, Vik Muniz’s land drawings Shovel, Outlet, and Pointing Hand are not meant to be preserved. These abstract signs represent what Muniz calls “mediated knowledge." Sticking out from the landscape in awkward, sinister ways, they will inevitably be erased and absorbed by the less iconic elements around them.
Jim Dingilian’s works take full advantage of the fragility and evasiveness of smoke. He first fills glass bottles with smoke and lets the inside surfaces become stained. Then he takes a small brush and meticulously creates scenes that illustrate communities at the edge of suburbia. They draw on the technical miracle of impossible bottles as well as nostalgia for message bottles washing up on beaches. The bold and dark illustrations with ghostly edges depict peaceful but undeniably ominous scenes, and the presence of smoke residue is a constant reminder that a fire has taken place.
Andy Goldsworthy gathers bones and sand, molding them into a gorgeously constructed sculpture. Then, in typical Goldsworthian fashion, the sculpture is left on a beach and over time the tides break it into its original components, which are left behind as debris. Dirt and dust are the exhaust of time, but they are also the most basic building blocks of physical existence. Life and art are erected from these disposable substances, and will, over time, return to them.
Antonio Riello’s work interrupts this inevitable cycle. In Ashes to Ashes, he burns books such as Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” and Joseph Roth’s Die Flucht ohne Ende, gathers the ashes into glass chalices of various shapes, and arranges them neatly on a shelf as if they are specimens from a scientific exploration. The orderly setup deeply mourns for the books but does not evoke the violence and chaos of book burning. The ashes are sheltered in glass, creating a tension between transience and permanence.