“there are, however, some veritable fanatics among researchers […]. they declare haughtily that humanity only produced works worth preserving in certain historical periods […]; the arrogate themselves the right to excise chapters from the history of human achievement. they set themselves up as censors of the archaeological profession […].” – eugène-emmanuel viollet-le-duc

01/07/2011 § Leave a comment

top – jorge otero-pailos, the ethics of dust (2008)
bottom – patrick ciccone, jorge otero-pailos cleaning the walls of alumix factory (2008)

 

the ethics of dust

in 2008 [jorge] otero-pailos was invited to create a work of conservation and art for the european biennial of contemporary art (also known as manifesta) in bolzano, italy.  in the disused aluminum factory where the biennial was housed, and from which the curators expected artists to take inspiration, he spent a month on scaffolding with three former students, cleaning a wall with latex.  he and his team spent every day at the factory, from morning to night.  they painted a latex cleaning solution (called arte mundit) on the wall, waited for it to dry and peeled it off.  they had decided earlier that the wall was too enormous to hang the latex skin as a continuous work of art: the latex would be too heavy and would snap; so instead they devised a grid system based on the factory window mullions, and hung rectangles of latex from the scaffolding.  together the rectangles created a tarnished, tissue-thin antique mirror, a reflection of the wall itself.  light from the factory windows shone though the pollution that had been transferred to the latex.  otero-pailos called the bolzano piece “the ethics of dust.”

the project was inspired, in part, by one of otero-pailos’s heroes, john ruskin, the british art and architecture theorist whose prodigious literary output included a book called the ethics of the dust (otero-pailos omitted the second “the”), originally published in 1865.  ruskin, who spent long periods in venice, believed that dust and dirt had value, and when deposited on buildings, became intrinsic to their history.  he called the accumulation of grime a “time-stain” and encouraged venetian conservators to preserve the city’s dark and dirty facades.  soiling meant age, and age was a building’s “greatest glory,” he wrote.  “restoration may possibly … produce good imitation of an ancient work of art; but the original is then falsified, and in its restored state it is no longer an example of the art of the period to which it belonged … [restoration] is a lie from beginning to end.” [2] 

ruskin’s ideas about preservation were compelling and influential; but then as now the field was marked by ideological divisions. ruskin’s contemporary, the equally influential architect-theorist eugène emmanuel viollet-le-duc, championed the reverse approach.  viollet-le-duc never hesitated to take creative license with his restorations, adding elements that were never part of a building to begin with and arguing that monuments should be brought to a state of perfection — of “completion.”  both men were complicated figures, and from our historical distance their passionately opposing views are easy to caricature.  but an important distinction distills in the simplification: ruskin, the “conservationist,” believed that buildings should remain as undisturbed as possible and that their age was to be revered and honored.  viollet-le-duc, the “restorationist,” wanted the monument to be remade.

by the late 19th century it was viollet-le-duc who appeared triumphant: ruskin’s influence in the world of preservation began to fade in the 1890s when camilo boito, a venetian conservator, dismissed the time-stain as “extrinsic filth.”  boito inspired wholesale cleaning campaigns and this view has, more or less, dominated the field for a century.  yet otero-pailos is not the first to find inspiration in ruskin or to reinterpret some of his theories.  the april 1997 issue of assemblage was dedicated to the theme “ruskin redux.”  guest editor jennifer bloomer, in her introduction, noted that it would be easy to consign ruskin to the forgettable past because of his “ignorance of building technologies,” “simplistic approach to the structure-ornament relation,” and his “failure to apprehend the spatial qualities of buildings.”  ruskin could, she suggested, be dismissed as a victorian snob with fussy sensibilities and a loopy prose style.  but actually, his “cries for architecture as a collaborative profession in which the construction worker’s skills are appreciated by a deferential architect would be very much at home on the pages of a self-critical professional journal today.” [3] 

thinking out loud about ruskin one afternoon in his narrow office overlooking columbia’s beaux-arts campus, otero-pailos noted that it was the metamorphic cliffs of the alps that inspired ruskin to think about the past and the future, stretching out forever in different directions.  for ruskin, stone was the foundational material of architecture; it provoked him to imagine architecture as a temporal reality. “stone almost requires you to project yourself into the deep past and deep future because it lasts and lasts and lasts,” said otero-pailos. but the details of ruskin’s far-flung travels don’t really concern otero-pailos.  instead, he is interested in creating iterations of his “dust” project in various cities across the globe because he wants to loosely retrace the footsteps of ruskin’s mind.  or, as otero-pailos put it, “the imagistic references in ruskin’s writings about different places where he’d been.  the places that had shaped his thinking, the kind of material environments.”

– laura raskin’s essay jorge otero-pailos and the ethics of preservation (01.18.2011)

i recommend reading raskin’s entire article and if you have the time jump over to betonbabe for viviane huelsmeier’s thoughts on viollet-le-duc in her mini essay, censored collective memory.

 

a young hare

 

 

works cited

[2] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), quoted in Norman Tyler, Ted J. Ligibel, Ilene R. Tyler, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 22.

[3] Jennifer Bloomer, “Ruskin Redux,” Assemblage, Vol. 32, April 1997, 8–11.

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You are currently reading “there are, however, some veritable fanatics among researchers […]. they declare haughtily that humanity only produced works worth preserving in certain historical periods […]; the arrogate themselves the right to excise chapters from the history of human achievement. they set themselves up as censors of the archaeological profession […].” – eugène-emmanuel viollet-le-duc at a young hare.

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