I am more curious about the elements that, by being so widespread, are usually for that very reason shielded from view. The voices of dust, the soul of dust, these interest me a lot more than flowers, trees or horses because I take them to be stranger. -Jean Debuffet
Another artist enamoured with dust is British sculptor Cornelia Parker, perhaps best known for her 1991 work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, or her 1997 Turner Prize nomination. Her 1997 piece “The Negative of Whispers”, for example, is a set of earplugs crafted from dust collected in the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The Whispering Gallery, which runs inside the vault of the cathedral dome, is so named because the whisper of a person facing one side can be clearly heard on the other side due to the remarkable acoustics of the rounded space. The dust earplugs are an inverse manifestation of the act of whispering, the positive to the negative space of a whisper. Like a whisper, dust is ephemeral. But here, Parker has transformed it into something lasting, physical, perhaps even precious.
This dust wasn’t collected from just anywhere, and isn’t an inverse of just any whisper. It was taken from a prominent religious institution, where a whisper might be a quiet prayer or simply a sign of the polite, self-conscious behaviour that such a place imposes on its visitors. Furthermore, St Paul’s Cathedral is a significant tourist destination. Each year millions of people visiting London will take pictures, buy postcards and snatch up tchotchkes marking their visit. They will marvel at the people who have passed through this space, and the royal weddings, important funerals, and jubilee celebrations that have taken place there. The dust of such a place holds the flecks of these people and events, and by collecting it Parker has mined her own piece of microscopic memorabilia. Like the tourist snaps, this dust is a token or relic, whose value is only generated by the memory of a specific place (or person or time) projected onto it. These sorts of objects are at once deeply personal, yet widely experienced- not unlike the place it was collected from in the first place.
The idea that this is “loaded” dust from a signficant and specific place relates this piece to a number of different works in Cornelia Parker’s oeuvre. For example her 1995 installation “The Maybe” at the Serpentine Gallery featured the actress Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass vitrine, surrounded by glass cases containing objects belonging to famous people, such as Queen Victoria’s stocking and Sigmund Freud’s blanket. Her fascination with the belongings of Freud continued in her 1996 piece “Exhaled Blanket”, a slide projection of dust and fibers taken from his couch. These works pay homage to the reverence we hold for objects belonging to those we admire, as if they might contain some of their precious essence which we can possess and perhaps even imbibe. Perhaps the “dust” left by people and places can even be seen as a physical manifestation of the influence they have left on the world, and the intellectual or spiritual space that their presence still fills.
// Further reading: an interesting Frieze magazine review of the exhibition “Dust Memories”, curated by Emmanuel Latreille at the Swiss Institute in New York in 2003.
// See part one of the “From the dusty corner of the museum…” series on Klaus Pichler. Click on pictures for image sources.
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:
- Biographical dust piles by Klaus Pichler
- Wedding dress made from WWII parachute
- Illustrated World Circus, 1934
- Map of a Woman’s Heart
- Processed cheese maps on toast