Clean or dirty ?

This post was written by Andrea Paoletti

Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life | Wellcome Collection | London | UK

There is no such things as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. Mary Douglas

A monster soup commonly called Thames Water | William Hearth | 1828

We speak more and more about how to make the world greener, less polluted, cleaner. I really appreciated the idea of this exhibition. It looks at dirt and cleanliness – their meanings and our attitudes towards them over the centuries. Inspired by Mary Douglas’s observation that dirt is ‘matter out of place’, the show introduces six different places, urban locations as starting points for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness. A subject that may represent a significant threat to our health but is also vital to our existence.  Dirt takes many forms, from the palpable to the symbolic. It can be used to encompass dust, excrement, rubbish, bacteria and soil but also as a metaphor to denote social, cultural or ethnic “outsiders”. Humans, like all living organisms, are efficient generators of dirt. Dirt may be seen as a marker of civilisation (waste produced by our factories) or it can also appear magical: crops grow in soil, strains of antibiotics have been discoverd in sewage. There are exhibited a home in 17th-century Delft in Holland, a street in Victorian London, a hospital in Glasgow in the 1860s, a museum in Dresden in the early 20th century, a community in present day New Delhi and a New York landfill site in 2030. Highlights include the earliest sketches of bacteria, John Snow‘s ‘ghost map’ of cholera, Joseph Lister‘s scientific paraphernalia, an interesting video “Microbes” by Sinclair Stammers and a wide range of contemporary art ( Igor Eskinja’s dust carpet, Susan Collis’s bejewelled broom, video pieces by Bruce Nauman and a specially commissioned work by Serena Korda). And at the end you will realise that the planet’s ingenious methods of recycling, from decomposition to photosynthesis, turn out to be the very reasons for its survival. Isn’t it fascinating? 

On the mode of communication of cholera | John Snow | 1855

Aerial view of Fresh Kills park in 2030 | James Corner Field Operations

Santiago Serra | 21 Anthropometric modules made from human faeces | 2005

Igor Eskinja | Untitled | 2011

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