A Handful of Dust: From the Cosmic to the Domestic
At the Polygon Gallery until April 28
Enter the first of three galleries in which A Handful of Dust is mounted and you will hear eerie, atonal music. It’s a snippet of the soundtrack, composed by Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue, to the 1959 Alain Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour. Playing on a video monitor mounted halfway along the room’s north wall, a short excerpt from the film depicts the smooth skin of embracing lovers transforming into glittering and hideous matter. Burn-blistered flesh, it seems, sprinkled with radioactive dust.
The soundtrack conditions our initial encounter with this insightful and engaging exhibition, which is predicated on another cultural artifact altogether. That is Man Ray’s 1920 black-and-white photograph of a Marcel Duchamp work in progress, a dust-covered sheet of glass that would become the protoconceptual work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass). First published as a “view from an aeroplane” in the October 1922 issue of the French avant-garde journal Littérature and subsequently incorporated into other artists’ designs, it was, decades later, titled Dust Breeding and signed by both Man Ray and Duchamp. In his introductory panel, independent curator David Campany writes that the exhibition is about that photograph’s “life and afterlife”.
“It is a document,” he continues. “It is an artwork. It is a document of an artwork. It is realist and abstract. It is a still life and a landscape, a forensic image and a performance.” It has “haunted” contemporary culture and is linked, in this show, to a raft of possible narratives. Writer, artist, and lecturer as well as curator, the London, England-based Campany has pulled together a diverse array of photographs from the past hundred years. Old and new, famous and anonymous, moving and still, they spin lines of connection with the Man Ray–Duchamp photo and pose the idea of dust as a defining subject of the modern age. At the same time, they alert us to the ways photographic histories may be constructed.
Artists here include Brassaï, Walker Evans, Mona Kuhn, Bruce Nauman, Sophie Ristelhueber, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, and Nick Waplington. Ostensible subjects range from desert wars to the dust-covered car in which Benito Mussolini took his last ride, and from peeling paint, rock surfaces, and Depression-era dust storms to the 2007 implosion of a Kodak film factory.
Campany weaves a number of fascinating connections out of his “speculative history”. Still, the pervasive tone of the show, he said at the opening-night reception, is one of “dread”. Certainly, there is the recurring suggestion here of death and destruction, and beneath many of the images persists the funereal intonation “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Photos of the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Resnais film clip, images by Shomei Tomatsu of objects found at the Nagasaki blast site, all speak of people and buildings blasted to dust. Reverberations of this theme are felt in Jeff Mermelstein’s photo of papers and debris surrounding a statue of a seated businessman following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Giorgio Sommer’s 1873 Plaster Cast of a Victim of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius seems to foretell later images of war and terrorism, even though that disaster was not of human making.
Another soundtrack underscores our reading of the works in the second and third galleries: that of Kirk Palmer’s video installation Murmur. His long, silvery, horizonless shots of a Hiroshima-haunted Japanese landscape are backgrounded by the sounds of birdcalls and a gradually building windstorm. Pliant, supple, almost human, bamboo trees are whipped into intense animation by the roaring wind and then, suddenly, there’s silence. Deathly silence.