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A Handful of Dust: true grit at the Whitechapel Gallery

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Cover of Minotaure magazine, 1935.

A Handful of Dust:  true grit at the Whitechapel Gallery

By James Brewer

An accumulation of dust in the studio of an artist a century ago has left a long trail.

This is tracked in a new exhibition which sweeps up into a diverse panorama the unexpected impact that a picture of the domestic dirt had on public perceptions of aerial reconnaissance, atomic destruction, natural disasters, wind and storm, surrealism and fashion photography.

Dust proves it can be durable, as the Whitechapel Gallery, London, mounts a fascinating display of the artistic trajectory in A Handful of Dust.


Élevage de poussière. Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp

The story began with a photo of a large glass covered in dust taken in 1920 by Man Ray which is now known in English as Dust Breeding (Duchamp’s Large Glass with Dust Motes).  Marcel Duchamp had been scrupulously leaving the object to collect dirt for a year. Man Ray (1890-1976) was one of his collaborators. The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York said of what was to become a symbol of a new dawn in art: “The photograph was taken with a two-hour-long exposure that beautifully captures the complex texture and diversity of materials that lay atop the glass surface.”

Scooping up the detritus that has occluded momentous events in the last 100 years, the show chronicles varied uses of the original image and blows through many other quintessential ‘dust’ themes. David Campany, a curator and author who teaches at Westminster University, conceived the project, and he delves expertly and sensitively into a detailed dossier he has assembled of dusted discourse. Close-ups of particles and micro-organisms are only the entrée to a display that is not so dusty after all.

Duchamp’s dirty glass had been a work in progress at his New York studio. Dust, for Duchamp, was supposed to be a measure of time.

When Man Ray was asked by an art collector to photograph this object among a bigger collection, he considered this was taking away his dignity as an artist but… “well, I need the money.”

Cover of Vogue, July 1945.

The photograph was first published in 1922 in André Breton’s Surrealist journal, Littérature and captioned as a ‘view from an aeroplane’ by Man Ray. This was possibly because it was only a few years after World War I and the public was keen on aerial pictures in magazines. It starts a relationship between aerial photography and early abstraction.

The year 1922 also marked the publication of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, the great poem reflecting on the modern era in the wake of the First World War. The poem includes the line “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” from which the title of this exhibition is drawn.

Over the years the image appeared in many journals, books and magazines, cropped and set in differing contexts each time, before it was formally titled Élevage de poussière (Dust Breeding) in 1964.

Duchamp (1887-68) was asked to design the cover for an edition of Minotaure, a review published four times a year between 1933 and 1939 and closely associated with the surrealists. He used the dust design for volume 2 number 6 in 1935 as a background to one of what he called his ‘rotoreliefs.’ Duchamp was keen on these rotoreliefs, decorated discs spinning on a turntable for optical amusement. The red-and-black motif has been likened to looking through a telescope at another planet. Nowhere in the magazine was the dust extract credited – it just says, “cover by Marcel Duchamp.”

Duchamp was one of many avant-garde artists and intellectuals who contributed to Minotaure, a name which derives from the Greek mythological creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man, trapped at the centre of the ingeniously-built Labyrinth.

The outbreak of World War II put paid to Minotaure but the press was not finished with the Man Ray saga. In the July 1945 edition of the high fashion magazine Vogue, the cover image is cited as being “after Duchamp’s Large Glass, Dust Breeding.”

Erosion, Mississippi. Walker Evans print.

The image has been mined for many other purposes, even to representing geopolitical conflict over energy, in the form of the wars in Iraq; and desolation and disintegration in Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing Book, a self-published photobook by London-based Louise Oates. There are further echoes of crumbling landscape in Ruins in reverse, a print from Google Earth by Los Angeles-based Mona Kuhn which shows the planned construction of California City. Located 100 km from Death Valley National Park, California City is a failed construction project from the 1960s which was meant to evolve into a great American metropolis. The road grid is visible, but the dust of the desert has encroached.

Another section is defined by earlier “dust in America” – the first dust storms of the 1930s were catastrophic, especially in the mid-west. One photo is entitled Trying to find the railroad track after a dust storm, while Erosion Mississippi (1936) a print by Walker Evans from the mid-1930s documents the rural landscape during the Depression. Social documentary photographer Aaron Siskind’s images of scarred urban walls could be abstract expressionist painting.

Still in the US, Robert Burley in 2007 photographed bemused spectators to Demolition of Buildings 64 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York. The headquarters of the analogue film manufacturer was flattened after the company ceased to produce film.

Woman scarred by radiation; and bottle melted by atomic bomb heat.

Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu’s image entitled Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation and Fire, Nagasaki (1961) is one of a group of photographs commissioned by the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. Another silver gelatin print is a portrait of a woman who had been irradiated when young. The photographer, who documented stark realities, said: “I could tell she had once been beautiful. She walked and sat in front of my camera, and said: ‘You came here to photograph me, right? So, hurry up.’”

Nearby is a clip from Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a 1959 film drama directed by Alain Resnais, which tells of a Japanese man who fell in love with a European woman: they have had a brief relationship and are separating. The two characters debate memory and forgetting as she prepares to leave, comparing failed relationships with the bombing of Hiroshima.

What is the sound of dust? A film shot in the forests on the outskirts of Kyoto gives us some idea of the overlay of wind on dust. Kirk Palmer’s 2006 video Murmur stems from the London artist’s first experience of the Japanese landscape in 2005. The wide views across the flat Kyoto Basin to the centre of the city unexpectedly called to mind the panoramic photographs of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. Kyoto, too, had been a shortlisted target for the atomic bomb.

And there is some real dust in the gallery: in 1977 Robert Filliou – a French artist and poet (1926-87), one of those people seeking to redefine the nature of art – crept up to paintings in the Louvre, Paris, and “cleaned” them with rags, which he then kept in cardboard boxes, 100 of them, for display elsewhere.  Would he have got past museum security these days?

Benito Mussolini’s dust covered motor-car.

Examples of photojournalism include a shot of the long-abandoned motorcar of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, besides which a mechanic examines his hands coated in thick dust. The automobile ended up mouldering in a Milan garage after Il Duce was captured in it and shot by Italian partisans.

Other artists and photographers featured include John Divola, John Gerrard,, Gerhard Richter, Sophie Ristelhueber, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington. A Handful of Dust was originally conceived for Le Bal, Paris, in 2015. A version was presented at the Pratt Institute, New York, in 2016 and it will travel to Moderna Museet, Stockholm, for September-December 2018.

In the Book of Common Prayer burial service, the blessing is earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Man Ray and Duchamp would be intrigued to know that as far as their initiative is concerned, the dust has never settled…

Picture captions in detail:

Cover of Minotaure magazine, winter 1935. Design by Marcel Duchamp with photograph taken by Man Ray in background.

Cover of Vogue July 1945, with image after Duchamp’s Large Glass, Dust Breeding.

Élevage de poussière. 1920 Gelatin silver print. printed c 1968. Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp

© Succession Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017.

Erosion, Mississippi. 1936. Silver gelatin print. By Walker Evans. Library of Congress press photograph. Collection David Campany.

Woman scarred by radiation; and bottle melted and deformed by atomic bomb heat, radiation and fire, Nagasaki (1961), photographed by Shomei Tomatsu.

Benito Mussolini’s dust covered motor car languishes in a Milan garage 10 years after his death. 1955 Press agency print. Photographer unknown.

A Handful of Dust is at Whitechapel Gallery until 3 September 2017. Free Entry

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