Two translucent latex sheets hang parallel to the east wall of Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster. They run the length of the thousand-year-old space, and reach from the top of the stone walls, beneath the medieval hammer-beam roof, right down to the floor. Walking between the wall and the hanging latex, one might think of an inner cloister, the sun filtered as if through alabaster, a honeyed light that’s always afternoon and autumn. But not now.
Given the material and its slight but noticeable odour, you might think it’s rubber-fetish day at Westminster (and it probably is, for some member or other). Cloth squares and rectangles are embedded in the yellowish, off-white latex, giving it a patched, uneven look. There are occasional smears of dirt, dark dribbles that look like old, coagulated blood, and lighter patches reminiscent of surgical dressings. Suppuration comes to mind. Wounds. Healing. Evidence. I cannot look at Jorge Otero-Pailos’s The Ethics of Dust without the associations tumbling in, seeing what isn’t there. Or rather seeing what is there, in the captured tide-lines and whorls of commonplace muck, but seeing something more, like the images one sees in the fire or an accidental smudge of paint, finding a pattern where none exists.
On the face of it the project is nothing more than the residue from stone restoration. Liquid latex was applied to the east wall of the thousand-year old hall, reinforced with fabric, then peeled off in two great, continuous lengths. As the material dried, the dirt in the wall migrated into the latex, leaving the wall itself rejuvenated, its surface returned to the original pale colour it had when medieval masons first dressed the stone. Cleaning stone is delicate work, but an almost everyday achievement for expert conservators today. The ethics of modern restoration and cleaning insist that the material itself isn’t harmed or discoloured or abraded by the restoration itself.
But what is in the collected dust and smears of dirt? Given the age and history of the building, and the thousands upon thousands who have walked through here, appeared on trial (including Guy Fawkes and Charles I), and lain in state (all those monarchs, and Winston Churchill), one asks if the dead shed skin, if anger and anxiety somehow permeate first the air and then the stone. The fires lit and torches burned, the miasma of excrement from the Great Stink of 1858 – when sewage lay piled in the summer drought up to six feet deep on the Thames foreshore – the smog of December 1952, the thickening air of the blitz, and who knows how much tobacco have all left traces.
Madrid-born Otero-Pailos is director of historic preservation at New York’s Columbia University. His The Ethics of Dust takes its title from an essay by John Ruskin, much of which concerned Venice and the Doge’s Palace, as well as Westminster Hall. Ruskin differentiated between restoration and conservation – the difference between destruction and preservation. Otero-Pailos’s Artangel project follows on from his own work cleaning the walls of the Doge’s Palace, the Pallazzo Ducale in Venice. This might be taken as a companion piece, and as something that looks like art but maybe isn’t. If it is more than a demonstration of the conservator’s art and science (and one that took endless negotiation with the authorities at Westminster, before various ceremonial dignitaries, including Black Rod, could finally give it the nod), its resonance now has been hijacked by the ongoing disaster in British life.
In the five years since it was first conceived and executed, the sheets have themselves been kept in special conditions, to conserve them. Finally hung this week, we are bound to look at them in the light of last week’s referendum, the events leading up to it, and the ongoing aftermath.
Across the hall, beside a set of stairs, is the memorial to murdered MP Jo Cox. There are flowers, and a remembrance book on a desk. The floor of the hall is a wasteland on which people stand about or scurry purposefully: working politicians, visitors, tourists, people who will come to look at this Artangel project.
How do I read the sheets? I could see Otero-Pailos’s presentation of these sheets as akin to the casts Rachel Whiteread has made of the walls of a Victorian room and of a house. Or Eva Hesse’s latex sculptures, Bruce Nauman’s corridors, accidental painting – the sort of thing Sigmar Polke might have done – or the 1970s paintings of Mick Moon, who used acrylic and canvas instead of latex to cast staircases and floors. Or as an act of care, or healing. But I don’t.
Instead I see a latex sheet drawn over a corpse before it is trundled out of sight. Not a Turin shroud but soiled rubber undersheets. Dirt is not dirt but only something in the wrong place, observed the third Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865), three times foreign secretary, twice prime minister. Everything is now in the wrong place, and dirt is everywhere.
Oddly, there doesn’t look like there is much filth at all on these pale sheets (which might also make you think of an acre of flayed skin, hanging in an empty room). But somehow that makes what dirt there is more noticeable, somehow worse, unignorable – just a few irreducable stains and smudges, and an overall grubbiness visible in the light. Enough to tell that something died, or is about to. That’s the smell too, not the rubber.
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