Kate Forde


Left: Serena Korda with Laid to Rest. Right: Igor Eskinja, Untitled, 2011, dust, 39 x 78".

Kate Forde is a London-based curator and critic. She co-organized the exhibition “Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life,” which mixes historical artifacts and contemporary artworks to consider the mercurial role of one of the world’s most common materials. The show is on view at the Wellcome Collection in London until August 31.

DIRT IS REALLY DIFFICULT TO DEFINE. On the one hand, it’s the stuff we spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding or cleaning away––it’s bacteria, excrement, filth. On the other hand, it’s the ground beneath our feet, the soil in which we grow our food, the stuff that supports and sustains us.

The exhibition moves from microbial to environmental concerns, from the tiniest germs of life first observed in seventeenth-century Delft to an immersive film installation in which the visitor “travels” through the largest landfill in the world. In the latter, Mierle Laderman Ukeles compels us to think personally about the relationship we have to the things we throw away and the way in which our actions shape our landscape. She is currently working with the developers on the plans for Fresh Kills on Staten Island [the world’s largest municipal landfill until it closed in 2001], for which she has conceived a piece to be titled Public Offerings Made by All, Redeemed by All. The idea is that one million people will select something of great personal value to be donated and captured in glass blocks that will be displayed at the site.

I visited Fresh Kills last summer. There was a faint whiff of sulfur in the air and the odd goose-necked gas pipe here and there, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that I was standing on millions of tons of garbage; it was actually quite lush, green, and fertile, and with a view of its maker, Manhattan.

Dirt in an everyday sense is central to the exhibition. Much like Michel de Certeau’s theory in The Practice of Everyday Life that consumers can individualize and appropriate mass culture, the scavengers of nineteenth-century London recycled apparently worthless materials. Igor Eskinja’s Untitled is a carpet made from dust, which is intended to disintegrate over the course of the exhibition. People seem to be almost magnetically drawn to examine it, walk over it, and destroy it.

Artists can be astute at finding hidden meanings in the mundane practices that keep our cities alive: the labor of sanitation workers, housewives, and cleaners who prevent us from drowning in our own filth; the subterranean systems that remove and transport our waste; the micro-organisms recycling and transforming our dirt. For her piece Laid to Rest, Serena Korda researched the great dust heaps at Kings Cross, which in the nineteenth century were recycled by local craftsmen who mixed it with clay to produce fine quality bricks. She fabricated a stack of five hundred bricks using dust donations sent to her by individuals and organizations as well as samples she collected from cultural institutions including the British Museum. The aesthetic of the piece references Minimalism, but it is also a memorial to the overlooked, highlighting an alchemy of dirt and inviting us to reexamine our attitudes toward the things we forget, cast off, or leave for others to find.

— As told to Megan Heuer