exhibition, Paris, photography

Some Dust in my Mind

1 Man Ray - Marcel Duchamp,

Man Ray / Marcel Duchamp, Élevage de poussière [Dust Breeding], 1920 (1964), 24×30.5cm

There are two ways to visit the exhibition A Handful of Dust at Le Bal in Paris (until January 31, 2016). The most serious option entails having read beforehand the lengthy essay (70 pages) by the curator, David Campany (or bringing it along in the exhibition, as it seems designed for such an use, printed on a leaflet which is detachable from the almost exclusively iconographic catalogue), and then observing each photograph in display with Campany’s argumentation in mind. His essay is substantial, scholarly, smart and rather well written; after reading it, you’ll be almost completely convinced that this photograph, the famous Élevage de poussière [Dust Breeding] (by then, you’ll know everything about it: about all the prints, all the publications, all the disputes in attributing its authorship to Man Ray or Duchamp), is not only the cornerstone of the whole exhibition, but also of the whole history of photography, and even of history of art as a whole, all the way down to Hemingway and Cage, positively. And so you will not wonder why this or that image is featured in the exhibition and how it is linked with the Man Ray / Duchamp one, for you will know the answers: everything is explained, analyzed, elucidated, demonstrated in this catalogue. You will come out feeling a bit groggy, a bit flabbergasted, not necessarily convinced by (sometimes blatantly) far-fetching assertions, maybe not much more intelligent, but certainly more knowledgeable.

2 La bibliothèque de Holland House

Holland House Library in Kensington, London, after an aerial bombing raid, 1940

Or else, you can choose laziness and dilettantism, you can feel content with the cultural veneer you’ve acquired here and there about Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre [The Large Glass] and this Dust Breeding photograph, and therefore you can simply let yourself go and experience the poetry of dust, its invincible persistence and its almost elegant incongruity. You can smile, upon reading Georges Bataille’s imaginary tale of Sleeping Beauty under a layer of dust, without necessarily blathering about the complex relationship between Bataille and Duchamp. And you can shudder at Bataille’s prediction of an Apocalypse for cleaning ladies (“fat girls – maids of all works” in his own words) who will someday be vanquished in this uneven fight against dust, leaving us prey to the worst nighttime terrors. You can admire the composure of London intellectuals during the Blitz leafing through books covered in dust from deadly bombings, in a library now lacking a roof. You can be moved by Pompeii and Hiroshima, two eminently dusty catastrophes, or you can be intrigued by the attire and habits of Midwesterners struggling against dust storms.

3 Tempête de poussière, Etats-Unis

Dust Storm, USA, 1935-1937, press photograph

You can also let yourselves be gently troubled (and, trust me on this, a certain kind of vertigo or intoxication will seize you then) by photographs that you do not understand at first (especially since the labels are rather badly displayed, missing or illegible at ground level), whose images present a disturbing and eerily unsettling appearance, for you cannot figure out the scale, even if you do discern rectilinear and structured shapes, or fluid and fleecy ones. Is this an aerial view of a desert or a field, or is it a banal domestic surface in want of housecleaning? Is it an aerial view of the Iraqi desert during the first Gulf War by Sophie Ristelhueber, or is it a crystalline micrograph by Laure Albin Guillot? Is it a floor mat or a wheat field? Precisely, this exhibition overlooks the question of scale, of the perception of size, and regrettably so, in my opinion, as geography and the scale of representations are neglected and overshadowed by the focus on history.

4 Les surprises de l'objectif

“Les surprises de l’objectif. Tapis-brosse ou lainage bouclé ?” [The Surprises of the Lens. Carpet Rug or Fleecy Wool?], VU, n°397, October 23, 1935

Another topic of interest, even with the leaflet in hand (actually, I only read the catalogue afterwards, at home; but having read it, I will probably go back if I can, and visit the exhibition with a different and fresh eye), another topic that could have been more thoroughly examined is the framing. Sure, we learn about the two published versions of Dust Breeding, with different framings, but we remain in want of a larger reflection on the effects of the frame on an image of dust. The frame can emphasize the disorientation effect, the feeling of vertigo, it can erase any sign indicating direction or place, neither up nor down, neither right nor left (similarly to Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds). Several images displayed at the Bal feature such tricks, and they could have been better deciphered.


Eva Stenram, Per Pulvere Ad Astra, 2007, 23x34cm

Finally, if this exhibition entices you, stop vacuuming your home, let dust bunnies and ashes accumulate gleefully, abdicate in the struggle against the dust goddess, and live as nomads who set up and take down their tents in the midst of dust storms. This is what Eva Stenram (whom we’ve already discovered in Arles, subverting conventions) did, in her own way. She stacked under her bed (analog) negatives of (digital) photographs of Mars, taken by the NASA. She did not clean her room for a few months, and she then retrieved the negatives to print them in a series titled Per Pulverem Ad Astra: “through dust to stars”. The red planet appears as if it had been tamed, domesticated by this oh-so light, so elegant white fluff, and Mars seems almost inhabitable. I wish you to enjoy this exhibition, to enjoy it through feelings and emotions as much as through reflection: “sic itur ad astra” (“This is how you reach the stars,” or “This way the starward path to dwelling-place divine,” The Aeneid, book IX, line 641).


Photos 2, 3 & 4 by Lunettes Rouges

Read this article:
in the original French; alt.
in Spanish

Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: December 26, 2015.

Translation by Lucas Faugère


One thought on “Some Dust in my Mind

  1. Pingback: De la poussière dans ma tête | lunettesrouges1

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