Review: A Handful of Dust, Whitechapel Gallery


Originally published by The Upcoming.

In 1920, Man Ray visited Marcel Duchamp in his New York studio. Man Ray was experimenting with photography, and Duchamp suggested one of his own unfinished artworks as a subject. The piece would later become The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), one of the masterpieces of 20th-century art.

Man Ray’s resulting photograph, entitled Dust Breeding, is a close-up of the work’s surface, the lead lines of Duchamp’s composition competing unceremoniously with discarded cotton wads and, above all, a thick layer of dust. Although the viewer’s eye is able to pick out tiny individual pieces of detritus, the image remains highly unstable: it could easily be an aerial view of a dusty landscape.

David Campany effectively utilises this work as the jumping-off point for his beautifully curated exhibition. The conceit of dust on which this compelling show pivots draws the viewer on a narrative through the major issues of the 20th century, touching on aerial warfare, societal displacement through geographical and economic factors, and the devastating impact of the nuclear bomb.

A Handful of Dust elegantly teases out previously unseen narratives and comparisons, figuring formal and conceptual similarities between works that initially seem worlds apart. In one room, a series of close-up photographs of a Gerhard Richter painting is juxtaposed with Ed Ruscha’s photographs from a roadside experiment in the desert and a record of concrete foundations in Barcelona, deliberately damaged to deter gypsy families from stopping.

Although the show pivots on the conceit of dust, the real subject here is the artistic and social positioning of the photographic image, playing off the inherent instability of the medium. The exhibition demonstrates how the way in which we read photography is highly dependent on context; those indexical signs that we take to be indisputable markers of meaning are actually far from fixed.

This is also suggested by the well-judged balance between photographs by artists and by anonymous authors. Some of these are press photographs, often showing editors’ markings for cropping and editing, demonstrating how even those images that we deem purely informational are always somehow constructed or composed.

The exhibition concludes with a return to Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, in the form of Sophie Ristelhueber’s 1991 aerial photograph of the Kuwait desert just after the expulsion of Iraqi forces. The work is clearly inspired by Dust Breeding; here again, scale is negated, disorienting the viewer. In a poignant last note, Ristelhueber is quoted describing the experience of viewing her work as “a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing”.

Anna Souter is an arts writer and editor based in London. See her website for more information.

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