It seems you can polish a turd. Wellcome Collection centres its latest exhibition on a gallery full of faecal matter, sculpted, caked and baked into five monolithic slabs. It’s one of many ‘eh?’ moments in an unlikely menagerie of grime.
Dirt explores our species’ relationship with muck and filth. As ever with Wellcome Collection, a seemingly narrow theme turns out to be almost unmanageably wide.
The exhibition is divided into six themed areas. Each is based on a city. The highlight for most will no doubt be the London section. Here you’ll find many familiar tales of filth. The Great Stink and Bazelgette’s sewers are obvious inclusions, as is John Snow’s cholera map, an early experiment in epidemiology that effectively mapped people who’d been drinking poo-tainted water. There’s also an astonishing painting of the King’s Cross dust heap (see above), a veritable mountain of ash and crap that once stood where the station is today.
This section also contains Laid To Rest. Artist Serena Korda collected dirt from various individuals and institutions around London, which she then baked into bricks. The gallery displays several hod’s-worth alongside a plaque of origins.
Elsewhere, the exhibition explores early microscopic views, the pioneering antiseptic techniques of Joseph Lister, the 17th Century Dutch obsession with cleaning, Dresden’s Hygeine Exhibition and the subsequent Nazi ‘purification’ of race, and New York’s attempt to turn the world’s biggest landfill into a giant park. Most shocking of all is the section on New Delhi. Here we find repugnant photographs of labourers wallowing around in human excrement, and, yes, those blocks of sculpted shit.
After the relatively benign High Society exhibition, Dust sees Wellcome Collection return to form, with objects that shock and awe.