IMG_3985a Handful of Dust, installation view

The exhibition a Handful of Dust was organised by David Campany. David began by looking at a photograph taken by Man Ray in 1920, of an artwork in progress by Marcel Duchamp, remembered today as two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.

When Man Ray took this photograph, Duchamp’s artwork wasn’t much more than some glass plates covered by a thick layer of dust. And the image that resulted was as strange as you’d imagine: it looked a bit like a landscape. In fact, when it first appeared in print, the image was titled View from an Aeroplane. This was in 1922, just after the First World War; people were used to seeing aerial reconnaissance photography, and this image blended right in.

So: what sort of photographs would you exhibit alongside an image like this? There’s a great range of pictures in this exhibition: some aerial photography from the war, with military photos of map-making, some of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bomb in World War II. As we can see, the twentieth century created a lot of dust.

Interesting associations emerge between the pictures. There’s the earth-shaking blast of the atomic bomb; next to these are Walker Evans’s photographs of erosion, a slower creeping of the earth powerful enough to shape mountains. From these photos of the American landscape, we move to images of the American Dustbowl; from images of the Great Depression to scenes of burials and graves. From graves, we move to monuments, and more urban scenes.

From here, we go from documentary shots to art. The artworks in this exhibition look at ruins, rubble, debris, and dust. It’s this sort of stuff, Campany points out, that poses a threat to the clean, organised order of modern life. We tend to turn a blind eye to all this debris and refuse, but this exhibition shows us that it’s worth a closer look.

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