Dust might: For a new exhibition, artists work in a material that’s synonymous with fleetingness

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An architectural plan of Ellis Island, made of dust (Grace-Yvette Gemmell)
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The art world appears to be having a memento mori moment: transience, collapse, erosion, and entropy are all themes that have recently been cropping up in shows across the city.

Mixed Greens Gallery just concluded a group show entitled End of Days that included artworks which drew on ideas of false prophecy, ecstatic apocalypse, revelation, and decadence. Before that, at Ford Project another group show entitled Heading for a Fall considered ruin head-on, while another solo show of Paul Jacobsen’s work over at Klemens Gasser and Tanja Grunert contemplated failed utopias, nostalgically anticipating civilization’s future demise. Now we have Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design at the Museum of Art and Design (on through August 12), which takes detritus as a broad metaphor for ephemerality, effacement, memory, and mass consumption.  

Many of the works in the show are site-specific creations, which isn’t surprising given the mediums (dust, ashes, sand) and idioms (transience, loss, detritus) driving the exhibition. I caught up with Igor Eškinja and Elvira Wersche, two of the three artists who were invited to create temporary pieces at the museum for the exhibition’s live installation series “Swept Away Projects.”    

Croatian artist Eškinja invited me to the museum to keep him company as he began the four-day process of installing his massive “dust carpet” for the show.  

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“I hope you don’t have allergies,” he said as I entered the space on the museum’s second floor. The raw materials he was working with essentially amounted to things commonly found lurking under a rug or crouching in a corner waiting for a broom. Eškinja got M.A.D.’s maintenance team to agree to stockpile all the detritus that was swept from the museum’s floors over a period of several months: hair, clothing fibers, shed skin cells, and other dust left behind from hundreds of anonymous visitors in the museum were lovingly collected and saved for use in his installation.

“Dust is essentially the remains of people,” Eškinja said, “but it is really a sort of living thing, contrary to how most people might view it.” His untitled installation began to take shape as he created large cardboard stencils, laid them directly on the floor, and carefully sifted the debris over them. Once the cardboard was removed, the negative space revealed an architectural rendering of Ellis Island.  

“The dust that was collected from the museum contains all the various DNA from the thousands of people who visited the museum in the last few months,” Eškinja explained. “And these people are all descendants of people who some generations before passed through Ellis Island. In this particular instance the dust that makes up the island is ironically from the descendants rather than immigrants.” Eškinja went on to explain that people always move somewhere else in the wake of a crisis, but added that “there’s really not anywhere left to immigrate anymore. There is no New World. The fact that the piece ultimately disappears also draws on this idea.”  

All of Eškinja’s work is similarly impermanent, ultimately destroyed by its viewers, and that is the point. The piece at M.A.D. will have the same fate.  

“For me the work presents a dilemma in the visitor: ‘Do I experience it and watch it dissolve, or do I not experience it in order to preserve it?’” Yet Eškinja does not consider his pieces as completely fatalistic or pessimistic. “My work instead reflects the fragility and ephemeral nature at the heart of the context in which we live,” he said. “When things are going well, things are still falling and dust is omnipresent in both bad and good places.”   

Across the way from Eškinja, Elvira Wersche was at work on what at first looked to be a giant cubist reinterpretation of a Buddist mandala. When I commented on this resemblance the German-born, Netherlands-based artist retorted “This is not meditation; this is hard work.” Scattered in the space on the floor were dozens of tiny plastic bags of sand meticulously labeled according to origin. Wersche has collected something like of a periodic table of different kinds and shades of sand for the past ten years from over six hundred places across the world.  

“Some people don’t believe that it is real sand,” Wersche said. “They think it must be spices or artificially colored, but it’s really just that there are so many different colors and types.” The sand was gathered from holy sites, mountains with temples, political activist events, significant and sacred monuments, and includes samples from Ground Zero and even sand that dates to the time of the Trojan War.

“All sand is history,” she told me, “and the historical aspect in sand inspires me most. For me it is mystical–layer upon layer of centuries on top of one another.” Wersche first started working with sand after journeying 6,500 feet beneath the earth’s surface into a mine and being captivated by the sediment. She did not know what shape her projects would take at first, but eventually began creating site-specific, temporary installations with the sand samples she began collecting: Tracing intricate geometric patterns on the floor, she sifted the small granules into the forms to create colorful sand mosaics.  

“The reason I like working with polygonal shapes is that new patterns continually emerge within them,” she said. “It’s a dynamic pattern that tricks the eye; the center of the circle continually loses its dominance so that even when the viewer tries to find it, it does not hold.” The striking piece she’s created for the M.A.D. show will eventually meet the same fate as Eškinja’s, though perhaps with somewhat more elegance since it will be erased not by the small breezes of passing viewers but by the fancy footwork of dancers.

Swept Away’ is on view now at the Museum of Art and Design through August 12. The final site-specific installation for “Swept Away Projects” will be a chalk installation covering the floor of the second floor gallery by British Artist Linda Florence, which will be on view starting April 12.