Dirt is the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life


Photo: Wellcome Trust, Engraving: "Monster Soup" by William Heath

Dirt, the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, is a new exhibition in London that takes us on a tour of the way we live with dirt; both then and now. Dirt, dust, excrement, rubbish, bacteria and soil: we make it, we live in it, and we don't like to think about it.

The show introduces six different places as a starting point for exploring attitudes towards dirt and cleanliness: ranging from pristine Delft Holland in the 1600's to New York's Fresh Kills on Staten Island.


Photo: Wellcome Trust, Tin-glazed earthenware plate Credit:Museum of London

A whirlwind tour of dirt starts in Delft Holland in the 1600's where the women spent all their days scrubbing and washing and cleaning and polishing to keep away the dirt.


Photo: Wellcome Library, King's Cross, London: the Great Dust-Heap, next to Battle Br

Onto the streets of London the 1800's where they did nothing about it. The city was a huge dust heap, with a stinking river full of excrement and a cholera epidemic that killed 15,000 people in 1849. This led to the development of a vast network of tunnels for a new sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette which carried the city people's poop to the eastern end of the Thames River.


Photo: B.Alter

In pride of place at this point in the show, we were delighted to see Serena Korda's dust and clay bricks. When we visited her pop-up shop in January she was in the midst of collecting dust from people's houses to make into personalized bricks. She was successful; with a list of more than two hundred donors posted on the wall behind this pile of beautiful hand-made bricks that show us the journey that she has taken. It is a replication of the bricks made from the huge pile of dirt in the King's Cross area in the 1800's where this brick-making really did happen on a massive scale.


Photo: Wellcome Trust, Poster for the First International Hygiene Exhibition Credit:Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden

Dresden Germany was so obsessed that it held the First International Hygiene Exhibition in 1911 which was attended by more than 5 million people. The hygienic standards developed led to the founding of a Hygiene Museum which unfortunately was co-opted by the Nazis and turned into the "science" of "racial hygiene." Impure genes had to be eradicated to create a physically superior race and we know where that led...


Photo: Wellcome Trust, Anthropmetric modules Credit:Santiago Sierra

India in the twentieth century still has a class of people, the Dalits, who scrape out their existence by clearing human waste from latrines. Almost one million people are paid little and treated as untouchables.

These modules are part of a larger new artwork of 21 modules in total by Madrid-born Mexican artist Santiago Sierra. They are made from human faeces for Sierra's faecal art which was collected, dried and sculpted by scavengers working for an Indian company,Sulabh International, that services public toilet facilities but also installs hygienic flush loos to replace the dirty latrines keeping the untouchables in their filthy employment.


Photo: Wellcome Trust, Aerial view of Fresh Kills Credit:Alex Maclean / Courtesy of the City of New York

The show ends with photos of Fresh Kills on Staten Islands, the world's largest municipal landfill. At its height of operation in the 1980's, the site was receiving almost 29,000 tons of garbage a day. Then the debris from the clean up of the Ground Zero area was dumped there after the attacks on September 11. Now the 4.6-square-mile landfill is being transformed into a recreational nature area three times the size of Central Park.

There are lots of dirty activities, lectures and dinner parties associated with the event. Including a feast of filth serving delicacies, such as haggis, peaty Islay whisky, fermented kimchi, civet coffee and charcoal-cleansed Thames water.

More on Dirt
Fresh Photos of Fresh Kills : A Landfill Transformed
Send in Your Dust for a Personalized Brick
Wearable Red Dirt , on a Shirt, Helped Save a Company

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