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Summer Reading

by James Croak
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“Dirt is not dirt, but only matter in the wrong place.” Variations of this quote have been attributed to William James, Sigmund Freud, Mary Douglas, John Ruskin and a host of others, but an 1883 issue of Longman’s Magazine confirms its author was Lord Palmerston. He aired his starched Sunday shirt on a gooseberry bush only to have it flitter into the mud, but he donned it anyway, uttering this now famous line.

It’s hard to define “dirt,” since it represents the dissolution of everything else, the final stop, the end of entropy, the common conclusion of the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to. Our relationship to dirt is entirely mixed: we grow our plants in it, but hoard soaps to dissolve it in the home. We scrub it from our bodies but purchase burial plots to enclose us after we pass. We stand on the porch marveling at the beautiful rich topsoil and spend the next hour vacuuming and mopping the floor to make sure that same stuff isn’t here, just there.

Dirt became contemporary art with the Earthworks of the late 1960s, a kind of formalism that moved out of the gallery, into the ground and then out of town. It wasn’t for ecological concerns as is typical today, instead it tended to be conceptual and psychological. Now, however, land art has made a return for environmental reasons, and in the mix as well is the use of dirt and nature -- nature is dirt, after all -- as a timeless balm against the fragmentation of media culture. The dirt salve is the subject of at least four new books.

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Elizabeth Pisani et al., Dirt, The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, April 2012, Profile Books, 256 pp., $35

First out of the gate was the Wellcome Collection in London, which mounted a show with the risky title, “Dirt, The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life,” Mar. 24-Aug. 31, 2011. Co-organized by Kate Forde, James Peto and Lucy Shanahan, the exhibition became a complete hit, with big attendance and extensive press from both sides of the pond.

Many museums have mounted shows merging science and the fine arts -- “The Machine” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968 comes to mind -- but the Wellcome performs this difficult task regularly and its expertise was apparent.

The curators began with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s tiny microscope in the 1670s, continued with haunting engravings of the progression of cholera, and finished with fecal sculptures by Santiago Sierra.

The book is a collection of well-written essays illuminating the sociology of dirt over the past several centuries.

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David Revere McFadden, Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, Museum of Arts and Design, August 2012, 134 pp., $80

The New York Museum of Arts and Design, making good on its hilarious acronym MAD, has put together a fine survey of the many artists now working directly with dirt in its many manifestations. The show includes heads sculpted of ash by Zhang Huan, new geoglyphs by Vik Muniz and a curious collection of New York City core samples by Margaret Boozer.

Written by MAD’s indefatigable David McFadden, the essay in this exhibition catalogue considers the dual identity of that stuff under our shoes: detritus to kick away and the fertility of soil to cherish.

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Megan Born, et al., Dirt, MIT, Cambridge/Viabooks University of Pennsylvania, 2012, 321 pp., $34.95.

Soren Kierkegaard lamented that a philosopher builds a magnificent castle and lives in the shed next door. I had that thought reading though this often utopian study of the intersection of architecture and landscape, an ambitious book assembling 33 essays by 40 architects, who examine the situation of buildings more than they do the actual buildings themselves.

There are no skyscrapers or starchitects in this book, more like a spreading ivy of ground-hugging biomorphic forms addressing environmental concerns. Several of the essays are keepers, and at the top of the list is the text by Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Barry Bergdoll, whose Rising Currents sets some of the book’s central themes.

In Bergdoll’s reading of the economics of architecture, the lack of work is a permanent condition rather than the result of the business cycle, an approach that spins the Mies van der Rohe maxim “less is more” into a new motivation for architectural adventurism. You will be living in that shed for some time, he seems to be saying, so you might as well get busy designing the perfect castle.

For Bergdoll, architects should be “interdisciplinary artistic and intellectual entrepreneurs” rather than craftspeople who give memorable forms to the ideas of others. This means widespread community planning, especially among seaside cities yet to address the rising tide. Again, utopian writing, nothing here that will keep the lights on.

Lindsay Bremner’s essay, Six Ways of Being a Stranger, is a pleasing eye-opener, pointing out that the contemporary practice of arranging space has been upended by population mobility. Previously we laid out the public square for a continuing community, now instead it’s done for the “permanence of strangers.” A profound discussion indeed.

Live Models is a text about a mechanical model of the changes in the icecaps by Future Cities Lab, the San Francisco-based design firm. The mapping device takes its inspiration from pre-computer mechanical planetary models known as orreries. Future Cities’ spreading Aurora Project shifts and writhes in march with the dataset streaming from weather satellites, a thrilling rethinking of static architectural model-making.

The rediscovered biomorphic engineering of Robert Le Ricolais fills two chapters, one a reprint of a prescient 1973 interview explaining the engineering advantage of nature’s forms. The human skeleton weighs 11 pounds but carries 12 times that sum plus much greater superimposed loads. He encourages others to abandon the right angles preferred in the trade in favor of weightless voids found in bone structure and other organic forms. Ricolais’ biotic engineering is being reincorporated for a new generation of designers.

Dirt holds more, much more -- enough mind food to make the book challenging to any designer. Many of the essays are written by people who probably excel at something else, but one can ignore the mislaid bricks to see the structure the author had in mind, sometimes nothing apparently, but often a beautiful terrace appears to climb and wonder.

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Twylene Moyer and Glenn Harper, eds., The New Earthwork: Art, Action, Agency, 2012, International Sculpture Center Press, 320 pp., $29.95

“Spaceship Earth” was Buckminster Fuller’s nickname for our earth ball hurtling through space, we are its astronauts and it “cannot be resupplied.” Worries about its future have an ever-enlarging group of sculptors viewing the earth as a creative partnership instead of a rental property. The New Earthwork is an ambitious survey of their efforts, and who better to have the pulse of this widespread but somewhat concealed movement than the International Sculpture Center in Long Island City.

The book includes new material as well as updated texts that previously debuted in Sculpture Magazine. In the introduction, Lucy Lippard explains the difference between 1960s earthworks and the new efforts 50 years later: ‘60s earth artists made remote tourist destinations with little ecology in mind, whereas today the artists are bringing earthworks to the city with nature environmentalism as a core issue.

Previously land art was a site, today it is an environment. The mainspring for this shift is dramatic population growth: the earth’s population when Robert Smithson bulldozed his Spiral Jetty was around 3 billion people. Today it is a staggering 7 billion. With diminishing natural and open areas, anyone tagging a public lake today would be in the clink.

The book’s colorful projects have had mixed results, as such is the adventure of inventing an entirely new form of art. Eve Andrée Laramée constructs gardens on the back of large diesel flatbeds, including one she covered with corn and accompanied with calculations about how far the corn-truck could drive with its corn-field converting the diesel’s CO2 back into corn bio-mass. Answer: 1/3 of a kilometer every three months. Excellent visual instruction. I cannot pass a semi-tractor without wondering which foliage is absorbing its energy expenditure.

Many artists are simply planting things. Joseph Beuys and volunteers planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassel as part of Documenta 7. Agnes Denes topped that with her Tree Mountain-A Living Time Capsule in Ylöjärvi, Finland, wherein 11,000 new trees were planted by as many people. It’s unclear how this is art as opposed to a large-scale reforestation, but then again, who cares? China designated March 12 as a national tree-planting day and everyone north of 11 is to plant three saplings each year. I wonder if Laramée can calculate how many tailpipes it will take to feed them.

Several sculptors work directly with material that is on its way back to dirt, turning trash into a type of esthetic. Barbara Hashimoto shreds junk mail and uses it as material for sculpted organic forms, while Steven Siegel builds pseudo-landscapes from stacks of newspaper and compressed cans, producing an organic topography that melds into the natural countryside.

The book is enjoyable with clear prose and illustrations advocating environmental idealism and activism already practiced by a remarkable cadre of sculptors. Systemic skepticism has been with us so long it’s hard to remember that there were historical periods of idealism, from reading these books I am wondering if we might be entering another.

JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.