Friday 20 May 2011

Joyful filth

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Wellcome Collection, London

‘ARREST all Dirt and cleanse Everything…’ declares an advertisement for Hudson’s soap. ‘Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life,’ is a wonderfully circular exhibition, warning the viewer of the perils of our filthy human existence, production of waste matter and the ultimate cost of reproduction, more waste. Yet the show appears joyful.

‘Dirt,’ presented in the spacious galleries of the Wellcome Collection, next to the grime of Euston Road, offers a fascinating selection of trans-disciplinary materials, artifacts, documents and artworks. An expansive range of themes; the body, home, community, city and environment, presents a thorough exploration of dirt from the early developments of the microscope in the nineteenth century to the landfills of the present day. The exhibition questions without threatening, moral attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness and at the same time gestures that we view this information carefully in relation to human fecundity today.

Cholera and related anatomical themes begin the journey through the mire, which interestingly avoids Freudian interpretation throughout. We are thankfully reprieved from gazing into our own collective shit, although rice water is included. A startling illustration, a stipple engraving, of a cholera victim, created in 1831 and owned by the Wellcome Library, presents the monstrous presence of the disease. The diptych presents the transformation a neatly coiffed, nubile twenty three year old Venetian woman, into a gnarled, green-lipped hag. Although the illustration seems unnecessarily dramatic, it is too easy to imagine the number of people afflicted by the disease in countless countries where poor sanitation exists today.

An accompanying Cholera report by the Medical Council, 1854-1855, also owned by the Wellcome Library, reminds the viewer how spurious explanations and strange phenomena often surround the discussion of disease. The report, latterly dismissed, presents a graph diagram representing cholera deaths alongside meteorological phenomena including mean figures for the amount of cloud, amount of rainfall, daily temperatures and direction of the wind. Only two of the fifty instructions included within the report concerned the source and quality of the water. The report seems poignant, humorous and characteristic of the persistent need to ascribe a scientific explanation, however false, towards epidemic disease that is not always understood fully within context at the time.

Am iron Tosher’s hook (1855- 1865), owned by the Museum of London, introduces the character of the Tosher, a sewer hunter who dredged canals of excrement, looking for valuable items particularly copper. Later in the exhibition, photographic images of sewer hunters in India, by artist, Santhil Kumaran, offers a reminder that for some people today, work consists of wading through sewers and septic tanks, risking exposure to dysentery and typhoid. The role of the worker, maid, sewer-hunter, housekeeper, cleaner or nurse who is assigned the task of removing the dirt created by the lives we inhabit is thoughtfully and provocatively presented throughout the exhibition. The Tosher who uses his iron hook to explore excrement follows the beatific Delft maidservant, who religiously sweeps the floor of her mistress’s home as she nurses her infant. A typology of portrait photographs by AJ Munby, 1861-1874, depicting his maidservant and latterly wife, Hannah Cullwick dressed in role-play guises, ‘slave,’ ‘married lady’ and ‘Hannah dressed in men’s clothing,’ wryly questions feminist claims of domestic emancipation today.

Dedication to work and humble attitudes towards being assigned tasks that seem demeaning dignify this exhibition beyond an angst-ridden display enticing guilt and despair. The political manifestations of Nazi propaganda exhibited in the show declaring the Jewish race unclean easily exposes the danger of obsessive religious ideology. Nevertheless, when we consider the dignity and humility with which the workers presented undertake their tasks we are reminded of beauty and joy and of a sense of grace that is somehow Godly and perhaps beyond many of us.

Till 31 August.  Part of the Dirt Season from the Wellcome Trust

A version of this review was first published in Third Way Magazine, May 2011.

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