What a contradictory climate Texas must have. At the moment, it is currently coping with the flooding disaster from the rainfall of almost biblical proportions caused by Hurricane Harvey; at other times it has to cope with immense desert dust-storms, as do other American states such as Kansas, shown in John Gerrard’s simulation of a dust storm in Dalhart, Texas and a wall of photographs and postcards of American dust storms from the 1930’s, on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London as part of the photographic exhibition “A Handful of Dust”.
Two top floor galleries have been blacked out to show 20th century photography which explores the unusual theme of dust and forms created by dust, including aerial photographs from which maps are drawn, natural dust clouds, bodies trapped in volcanic ash, man-made destruction of buildings and cities in wars and conflicts, forensic dusting for fingerprints, and google maps showing traces of lost settlements such as Mona Kuhn’s image of California City – planned but never built in the desert, and dust clouds created from the demolition of obsolete buildings – ironically the Kodak factories in New York, once a centre of photographic film manufacture, photographed by Robert Burley and crowds if people using digital cameras and mobile phones.
Dust, with its implications of change, decay and memories, has been used as a medium by artists themselves. The exhibition starts with Man Ray’s 1920 photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass”, at that time work in progress, which he deliberately left to gather dust in his studio, and later published in a variety of different ways, cropped and altered, from 1922 as the “view from an aeroplane” to 1964 when it was elevated to “Élevage de poussière (Dust Breeding) (1920)”, while Eva Stenram hid photographic negatives of the surface of Mars under her bed to gather dust before being made into photographic images which join Mars and Earth together, and Louise Oates shaped dust in her studio into maps of land where gas is being extracted by hydraulic fracking, while Nick Waplington juxtaposed photographic images of a landfill site near Hebron alongside paintings of the disputed territory.
The exhibition features works by over 30 artists and photographers alongside magazine spreads, press photos, postcards and film clips, all linking to this unlikely, but fascinating, subject. There is however one thing missing – and that is the dust that swirls around the Whitechapel Gallery itself – a missed opportunity, given the location of the Gallery and the increasing political agenda around air pollution. Where are the photographics relating to this, whether today or in the past with, for example, the “great smog” of 1952 or the great 19th century fogs that evoke the period of Jack the Ripper? Perhaps another time?
“London’s dirty air is a silent killer. It contributes to the deaths of 4,000 Londoners a year – that’s 76 every week or more than 10 every day. Tower Hamlets has some of the most polluted areas in London. Whitechapel High Street has the dirtiest air in the country. Our schools and nurseries have some of the dirtiest air in the country, including the absolute worst of all.” (Alistair Polson, Tower Hamlets Green Party, 2017).