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Review - Exhibition - Life of grime

Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life

Wellcome Collection

Until 31 August 2011

Admission free

By Jerome Monahan

This exhibition begins in a seemingly inauspicious way, confronting the visitor with sculptor James Croak's 1991 Window fashioned entirely from road sweepings. It is a particularly opaque work with which to open such an illuminating show: one that manages to place what is despised and discarded centre stage, continuously confronting the visitor with the arbitrariness of what we throw away. This it achieves across four centuries and six stopping places, ranging from 17th-century Delft to 21st-century Staten Island, New York.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas's well-known dictum that dirt is merely "matter out of place" provides the exhibition's strongest organising principle and one that goes to the heart of the ambiguous relationship that human beings continue to negotiate with their waste products.

This is especially true of the parts of the show that explore Victorian London. Buildings were created from bricks formed in part from reconstituted fire ash and dust. The city's inhabitants were also threatened by the contagions resulting from poor dirt management.

Here the story explores the mid-century battle between the miasmatists (who studied air pollution), those convinced that cholera was a product of bad air, and the pioneering work of John Snow, whose detective work managed to trace the outbreak of the disease back to contaminated water coming from a public water pump in London's Soho.

History teachers who want to cover the history of medicine need look no further than this portion of the exhibition. If the portraits of cholera victims with their skin turned blue by the disease, or the vial containing the "rice water" excreted by a sufferer in the latter stages of the infection, do not bring home the disease's enormity and horror, then nothing will. Similarly chilling is Snow's own "ghost map" with which he charted each of the 1854 cholera deaths street by street and the surreal "epidemic ambulance" - a nightmarish black, enclosed stretcher.

The history syllabus is well served by the space dedicated to Joseph Lister's pioneering work at Glasgow's Royal Infirmary where, before his regime of cleanliness and the novel antiseptic surgery he practised, anyone presenting with a broken limb faced a 90 per cent probability of amputation. Here, alongside the instruments and a helpful diorama of a model aseptic ward, the curators have also included detailed watercolours illustrating the effects of gangrene, which despite their subjects are nonetheless beautifully rendered.

There is also plenty here for the GCSE and A-level art student seeking inspiration. Such blurring of artistic boundaries is a key thread running through the exhibition, which includes a number of provocative works such as Bruce Nauman's film of someone obsessively washing their hands.

Equally fascinating - and shocking - is the wealth of applied art on show in the form of late 19th-century soap ads unashamed in their racist association of black skin with dirt. It is a conceit taken one step further in the section dedicated to Dresden in the 1930s in which the city's long-established hygiene exhibition saw its legitimate preoccupations corrupted by notions of racial purity.

The penultimate room relies heavily on photographs of the miserable latrine-clearing duties of the dalits - the so-called broken people of India - born to wallow in others' waste and whose continued existence undercuts the supposed outlawing of the caste system.

If I have one criticism, it is that there is less substance to the exhibition in its latter stages. Geography students will have to work hard to make good classroom use of the Indian latrine room and the final space dedicated to the story of New York's Fresh Kills on Staten Island - so huge a landfill site it is apparently visible from space. Here the area's rehabilitation as a park - prompted by a post 911 desire to honour the site where most of twin towers debris was deposited - is explored in a series of documentaries featuring interviews with environmentalists and engineers. It is a bizarre end to a gripping journey.


About the exhibition

The Wellcome Collection's Dirt exhibition brings together about 200 artefacts spanning visual art, documentary photography, cultural ephemera, scientific artefacts, film and literature. It aims to uncover a rich history of disgust and delight in the grimy truths and dirty secrets of our past. It also points to the uncertain future of filth, which poses a significant risk to our health but is also vital to our existence. Free guided tours are on offer throughout June, July and August. Go to www.wellcomecollection.orgwhats-ontoursall-tours.aspx for more details.

The verdict: 810.

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