Re:View – ‘Dirt’

London, Media, The Arts

The latest exhibition at the Wellcome Institute on Euston Road is its filthiest show ever. And it turns out to be rather disappointing..

‘Dirt’ looks at around 200 artefacts spanning visual art, documentary photography, cultural ephemera, scientific objects, film and literature connecting with dirt and public health, and in fairness the exhibition should have been called ‘Public Health’ rather than ‘Dirt’ because under the latter nomenclature it sidesteps your expectations.

Rather than a historical look at dirt, disease and sanitation in the city, this is a sort of global roam through the subject of health, and feels chaotic in construction. The Wellcome is situated in a spot once known for its ‘dust-heaps’, which were eventually shipped to Russia to provide building foundations, but you won’t find much beyond an etching here.

Instead, you’re greeted with an entire room of Delft pottery and paintings on the vague link that the Dutch were very clean. There’s a look at German public health and buildings, and rather too many inaccessible books in cases, and no real sense of a timeline taking you through health discoveries.

The subject is amorphous, and narrowing the scope of the exhibition would have greatly improved it. A giant video installation that bored/ confused me, and an art piece featuring dancers offering housebricks to each other acted as further distancing devices.

For the record, there are paintings by Pieter de Hooch, the earliest sketches of bacteria, John Snow’s ‘ghost map’ of cholera, too much delftware, Joseph Lister’s scientific paraphernalia and some contemporary art, including Igor Eskinja’s dust carpet, Susan Collis’s jewelled broom and James Croak’s dirt window.

If you’re looking for the way in which these jigsaw pieces fit together, you’d best head for the Wellcome’s excellent bookshop, where the exhibition catalogue is far more extensive and explanatory. Find out more here.

4 comments on “Re:View – ‘Dirt’”

  1. M@ says:

    Some good points. I enjoyed it overall, but the opening room was a very underwhelming way to start. Here’s my review:

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Do they also have examples of dryer lint art? Although that isn’t dirt, properly speaking, any more than delftware is. I heard a wonderful lecture on public health in Dickens’ London once which laid out all the wonderful ways you could die and the terrible things that were sold as food (chalk and water in milk, tea that was literally swept up off the floor and you don’t even want to think about either flour or sausages). Too bad they didn’t do a better ordered job of it, with all the possibilities there are.

  3. David says:

    I found the exhibition really good – rather then breadth, I though carefully selected and thought out themes, loved the way that they had curated the mixture of old and new, and I went away thinking that the whole experience was rather profound. But I guess we each have different ways of responding to stuff. I’ve been recommending the show to others.

    I agree that the book is excellent. Well worth acquiring (and I’m afraid only 50% of the price on Amazon compared to buying in the show).

  4. Helen Martin says:

    If you buy it at the show you help to support the institution displaying the material (I would hope.) Nice to get another viewpoint of an exhibition one isn’t going to see.

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