Coming clean about those foul things

2011-04-08 15:12

Dirt. Filth. Muck. Grime. Waste. Trash. Junk. Garbage. Rubbish. Scrap. Debris. Refuse. Detritus. Rubble. Slops. Rot. Dung. Decay.

Foul though they sound, the yucky things that we generally prefer not to see, smell or touch are the subjects of an intriguing exhibition Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Running until August 31, it explores how society’s relationship to dirt and other unwanted debris has changed through the centuries.

A subplot of the show is design’s role in helping us to deal with them: from the surprisingly sophisticated drains, cesspools and sewers of ­ancient Babylon, to the heap of trash on the (aptly named) Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, New York, that grew to be taller than the Statue of Liberty.

It is a timely theme, because our ­expectations of how design should tackle the problem of what to do with muck, grime, detritus and so on are changing dramatically.

Since the Industrial Revolution, ­designers have strived to find ways of disposing of dirt and waste – so the rest of us can forget about them – largely without worrying about the consequences.

The concept of dirt as bad, ­cleanliness good, has been ingrained in ­religion, philosophy, folklore and ­superstition for centuries.

The phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” is rooted in an ancient Hebrew proverb, and physical contact with dirt has been fobbed off on poorly paid workers, mostly women and often émigrés, throughout history.

Tony “I’m in waste management” Soprano was a rare exception, and even he made most of his money elsewhere.

Kate Forde, the exhibition’s curator, suggests in the catalogue that our aversion to dirt may stem from its ­association with excretion, the decay of aging bodies, death and other ­taboos.

Up until the 18th century, most ­people, even very wealthy ones, lived in what we would now consider to be perilous squalor. Washing and bathing the body was considered unhealthy.

By the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution was producing unprecedented quantities of filth and trash.

The exhibition shows how ­extremes of dirtiness and cleanliness have played decisive roles in different urban environments at particular points in history, and how designers have dealt with them, both by helping people to dispose of detritus and to clean themselves and their ­surroundings.

It begins in the Dutch city of Delft during the late 17th century.

Most other places were filthy at the time, but Delft was renowned for cleanliness. Housewives – or their servants – ­devoted many hours of each day to sweeping, scrubbing and polishing. Their motives were partly religious: the cleaner the home, the more virtuous it was thought to be.

The exhibition then moves to ­London in 1854, when a cholera ­outbreak killed 500 people in the Soho area. By the 1860s, Joseph Lister, a ­pioneer of sterile surgery, was redesigning Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a model of cleanliness and efficiency. And in the early 1900s, the Hygiene Exhibitions staged in the German city of Dresden in 1911 and 1930 were hugely effective at raising public awareness of the benefits of hygiene.

Their success led to the opening of a ­Hygiene Museum, only for its methods to be co-opted by the ruling Nazis as propaganda for “racial purity”.

One of the strengths of the exhibition is its refusal to flinch from the negative aspects of its content, but it also celebrates unexpected positives. Dirt does, after all, have healing properties, such as the new forms of antibiotics found in sewage.

It also plays a symbolic role in religious rituals.

Dirt has also become an improbable, but reasonably reliable symbol of economic virility. The volume and ­variety of the waste generated by a country is seen as “uncelebrated evidence of industrial and economic progress,” as Forde puts it in the catalogue.

The same applies to companies and individuals. Though this assumption is now checked by the soaring human, environmental and economic cost of our past negligence toward waste.

Once the world’s largest municipal landfill, it is nearly three times bigger than New York’s Central Park, Fresh Kills was closed in 2001 and is to be redesigned as a park.

It is a fitting finale and a sombre reminder that “progress” can no longer be measured solely by the quantity of debris we discard, but by the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which it is treated. – The New York Times 2011

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