Swept Away: Dust Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design

21 Mar

submitted by Vanessa

About a month ago I saw a Time Out New York listing for a show at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) called Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design (on view February 7- August 12, 2012), which immediately intrigued me. I’ve always been a sucker for sculpture, probably due to my brief excursions into ceramic, glass, and stone as artistic mediums in my teens and early twenties, and combined with my interest in the artistic use of “alternative” and reclaimed materials (Garbage sculpture? Statue of Ulysses S. Grant made entirely of human hair? Elephant dung replica of ancient Rome? I’m all about it. The weirder, the better.), meant I had to go. And, also, admittedly a contributing factor to my visit to MAD two weeks ago-the Whitney Biennial had a line around the block and I don’t like waiting. For anything.

With that said, a little about MAD: This was my first trip to the museum and in my expert (read: amateur, yet slightly entitled) museum studies master’s program-educated opinion, it is very well done. It’s located in New York’s Columbus Circle in a seven storey building with excellent natural lighting from its floor-to-ceiling windows, and comes equipped with pretty museum-standard plain white walls and neutral wood paneled flooring, as well as a terra cotta and fritted glass façade inspired by its dedication to the materials of craft and decorative arts. The museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions highlight contemporary art, craft, design, architecture, fashion, interior design, technology, performing arts, and design-driven industries. Along with Swept Away, MAD is currently exhibiting Hanging Around: Necklaces from the MAD Collection, Beauty in All Things: Japanese Art and Design, and Glassress New York: New Art from the Venice Bienniale.

Additionally, MAD has created onsite alternative learning environments and utilizes enlightened curatorial practices, two things that would excite any museum studies dork. For example, one floor of the museum is dedicated to open artist studios where craftspeople and visual artists make themselves available for demonstrations and conversations with the viewing public, and, as is the case with Swept Away, some of the wall texts are written directly by the creators of the pieces, limiting institutional and curatorial voice, or cutting out the middle man between artists and the public, so to speak. Populist museum critics of the 1990’s would be proud.

Now, on to the main event. Swept Away features quite a bit of really strange shit. My favorite. To name a few, there is Flora (2010) by Phoebe Cummings, a painstakingly detailed floral sculpture reminiscent of an extravagant still-life portrait made of bone-dry stoneware that, due to the very nature of unfired clay, is slowly crumbling before your eyes into dust. And it’s totally supposed to do that. The artist’s explanation is that it teeters between excess and collapse. Sort of like me on Friday nights at the bar.

Ritual Accumulations (2011-12) by Julie Parker, a 5’ by 7’ traditional folk-style patchwork quilt fashioned out of various colors of dryer lint, is another piece that stuck out to me; this time because the piece reappropriates a common craft art form and turns it into… well, I’m not sure what it accomplishes, but it’s made of freaking dryer lint, ok?

Also very cool is a series of glass (mostly liquor) bottles stained with smoke to depict scenes of dilapidated middle-American homes and landscapes by Jim Dingilian, one of which is called Unspoken Conclusion (Footbridge) (2009). It’s sort of like a message in a bottle, only this one is always depressing.

Overall, my favorite part of the exhibition was a video documenting Ossário (2006-11) by Alexandre Orion. It’s only about three minutes long, which is just about as long as my attention span, and it does a fine job of showing some of the work’s many original installations in the automobile tunnels of São Paulo while being executed by the artist, as well as explaining the political, environmental, and human health issues the work points out. Along with some great footage of Orion getting rolled on by São Paulo PD for all you COPS fans out there. So what exactly was this guy doing? Well, he was pressure washing car exhaust soot off the tunnels in the image of human skulls to draw attention to the city’s pollution problem. However, as the film lays out for you, as much as SPPD wasn’t a fan of his work, he wasn’t actually breaking the law (‘cause, you know, he was just cleaning, Officer), and the city had no choice but to clean the tunnels to erase the works. While the skull imagery part is a little too melodramatic for my liking, I like the sticking-it-to-the-man part, especially because it ultimately meant that he achieved something good for his community in the eventual cleaning of the tunnels. How very cheeky of you, sir. I approve.

All the pieces in the show seem to offer a commentary on the ephemerality of art, and by extension, life, through the use of these fragile and fleeting materials. There is also something to be said about placing the discarded and undesirable pieces of our lives and world into the forefront by transforming them into communicative artworks that are in some cases, shockingly stunning. I also think there is a thread about the destructive nature of humankind tied in there somewhere, but maybe that’s just due to the incredible urge I had the whole time I was in there to snap off pieces of bone-dry clay, mix together carefully siphoned off sand collections, and turn a leaf blower on precariously crafted dust and ash sculptures. Maybe that’s just me. And maybe I should see someone about that.
All in all, I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking, yet accessible. I think MAD makes an interesting case for tangible materials, however ephemeral they may be, and traditional artistic craftsmanship in an era where “contemporary” increasingly means digital “new media” (anyone see that video game exhibition at the Smithsonian? Dear Lord, help us).

Also, I highly recommend MAD’s Glassress New York Venice Biennial glass show. The pure logistics of shipping (and insuring) all those large-scale and infinitely intricate and fragile glassworks alone is mind-boggling. And, as my boyfriend astutely pointed out, the tiniest of seismic activity would lead to the certain demise of millions of dollars worth of dirt- and glass- art, so you might want to check it out while you can.

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