Review of the Exhibition “Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life”

29 Jun

“There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder,” declared anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas in her 1966 book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, cited in this exhibition of 200-plus artifacts at the Wellcome Collection that explores the core of Douglas’ analysis: society’s undying obsession with cleanliness.

Dirt connotes more than the mud your child tracks in, it embodies tangible forms like rubbish, bacteria and, yes, soil, but also symbolizes social, ethnic and cultural “cleansing,” and the frailty of the human condition. A threat to you and your family’s health, yet essential for survival, dirt is a muddied concept.

Within the sanitized walls and russet text, visitors will find the beauty of dirt with 17th century porcelain chamber pots, Igor Eskinja’s 2011 Dust Carpet art piece, and Susan Collins’ propped broom that if not eyeballed for the hidden jewels within its bristles would be missed as if property of the Wellcome’s maintenance man.

Visitors will also be repulsed by its dangers with a glass bottle of intestinal excretion from an 1853 cholera patient, an 1850s tosher’s hook used for fishing out sewage treasures, and the anti-Semitic propaganda from Nazi Germany.

More poignant than nauseating, the exhibition stirs feelings of pity for the people who inadvertently live in filth, like the Hindu caste the Dalits, and disgust for the “haves” who have mutated “Fresh Waters” into “Fresh Kills,” as they have in Staten Island with its landfill that towers over the Statue of Liberty.

This exhibition authenticates that motherly expression: maybe a little dirt — of a certain kind — will indeed hurt.

The exhibition runs at the Wellcome Collection until 31 August, 2011. Click here to watch a trailer about the show. 

Uttar Pradesh, India - 30-year-old woman holds basket of human excrement to scavenge through. 80 percent of scavengers are women. Photo Credit: Friedrich Stark, 2010


Sewer scavengers in India in 2007. Photo Credit: Senthil Kumaran/Trikaya Photos


Fresh Kills landfill at Staten Island in 1992. Photo Credit: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel/Getty Images


Igor Eskinja's Dirt Carpet, 2011. Photo Credit: The artist and The Independent


An Italian woman before and after contracting deadly cholera in 1831 depicting the dangers of "dirt". Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London


"Waltzer 2007" by Susan Collins - Bejeweled broom, easy to overlook. It had pearls, rubies and other precious gems to show how labour intensive cleaning can be. Photo Credit: The artist and The Independent


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