December 2, 2023

Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design (review)

Swept Away is a understated and incredibly poignant exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design. Curator David Revere McFadden takes on unusual materials by presenting the use of the media as the uniting factor in the show. The 26 contemporary artists whose work makes up the exhibition all use the ephemeral and unconventional materials suggested in the title.


The pieces are each terribly unique, yet engage on multiple levels with the lexicon of art history. Antonio Riello’s Ashes to Ashes, a series of glass urns set on selves in which lie the ashes of his favorite books. Turning the ritual of cremation towards the loved object of the well-worn book turns on the act of commemoration but also the political, violent significations of book burnings. The aesthetics of the ashes themselves are visible in the glass urns upon which are enscribed the name and author of the tomes.


Vik Muniz’s work is represented by a pair of black and white arial photographs of his large scale earthworks that dialogue directly with the Peruvian Nasca lines as well as the Land Art movements typified by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The natural eroding quality of the earthworks as well as the temporal qualities of the photographs themselves encroach a new, critical perspective on Land Art.


One of the few media displays in the exhibition is Cai Guo-Qiang’s moving tribute to those who have been displaced, namely Arab refuges in the Chinese provenience of Quanzhou. Ephemeral bursts of black color, produced by small microchips imbedded in fireworks, were released into the sky, where they produced an effect comparable to ink spilling over a surface or ghostly crows in flight. Following this etude, Guo-Qiang released colors in the form of rainbows, signs of hope that lasted equally as briefly as the first. Here smoke, usually a sign of destruction was re-purposed and masked with meaning.


Each artist in the exhibition works with their chosen medium in a highly specialized and unique way—from Catherina Bertola who designs intricate wallpaper scrolls and flowers out of dust to Jim Dingilian who creates images from candle smoke inside a glass bottle.

Physically arresting and emotionally touching, the exhibition unites artist’s whose work is lesser known, but terrible relevant and meaningful.


Swept Away is on view at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, NY through August 14.,/greater%20than/,/0/,/false/,/true&action=searchrequest&style=single&currentrecord=3

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