Dust is a marker of activity and inactivity alike. It occurs as a byproduct of all activity, and yet most commonly marks and attacks those zones and objects that appear inactive, defunct, resting. Dust is a great indicator of time passed. As such, it is not without merit: While it commonly might be considered harmful or a sign of neglect, it also bestows historicity upon its bearers, marking the rank, random object as old, antique, even rare on occasion. Thus, dust is a great paradox in the world of institutionalized history, the museum. Often a prerequisite for its objects of care, it is to be avoided once these enter the sphere of museological influence. Dust is allowed on a thing; never in a building.
Marcel Duchamp, of course, was the first great modern philosopher of dust: his Large Glass languished in his studio for years, collecting dust, where Man Ray photographed the surface in 1920 for the famous image Dust Breeding. During these years, Duchamp would sometimes refer to his professional activity as dust breeding, and the outcome is spectacular as ever. Lunar and evocative, the dust turns the underlying patterns into ridges and pathways, craters and valleys and geometric forms only equaled by the monumental efforts of Land Art. Dust here is a creative force, a contrasting agent revealing in a new light that which without it would appear idle and unfinished.
But dust is also a truly democratic force, able to contain all and everything, and settle almost everywhere; a resident of every crevice and country, and a representative of all things, organic and inorganic. As Dane Mitchell writes, "the particles that lurk in corners and recesses contain everything from space stones to Saharan dust, from fungi to the bones of animals, bits of modern tire rubber, poisonous lead, long banned pesticides, dangerous molds and bacteria and countless micrograms of human skin. Such clusters are riddled with allergy-inducing dust-mite parts, with the mites themselves, and with the pseudo-scorpions that stalk and kill them."
Mitchell's Dust Archive might be seen as an investigation into the politics of dust, or maybe represents a scientific analysis; possibly, it is a philosophical tract about the ubiquity and unavoidability of its subject, a study in the failure of a sisyphean labor to repel dust. The project involves the ongoing collecting and building of an archive of dust from museums and galleries around the world (predominantly those with collections - this is true but for a couple of exceptions) - so far the archive contains samples from 60 institutions. It displays all the hallmarks of conceptual practice: the studious longevity of its research-based accumulation, the neutral, quasi-scientific display paradigms, the benign critique launched at the institutions of art, and the administrative language of non-art. But it fails to deliver the ideological punch that practices of institutional critique meant to deliver: is there a form of unalienated dust, or a difference between its socialist and capitalist varieties? Are there forms of dust occurrence that are truer to the artworks' intentions in the institution's care, or less discriminatory in effect?
In the end, Mitchell's Dust Archive comes closest to a study of the environments of all art: more accurate than the most ambitious sociological study, more historical in time than the most far-reaching research papers, more diverse than the broadest sample group. It is a record of all that comes to visit art in its different and multifarious homes, and thus represents the potential, eternal audience: for we all come from dust, and to dust we shall return.
Text from North Drive Press no.4, published in New York by North Drive Press.