Material Remains

T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land (1922) an epic reflection on metatextual narratives, has undoubtedly provided a plethora of influential meditations on contemporary life. Two years earlier, Marcel Duchamp created The Large Glass, a seminal work that found beauty in gathering dust, the result resembling a strange landscape. This is the starting point for a prolonged investigation into a deep, thoughtful view of the 20th century, seen from a new angle.

Virtually invisible at times and yet all pervasive, dust is the somewhat unlikely focus of a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. David Campany uses it as a motif to bring together art and ephemera, documenting some of the most important moments of modernity – all through a slightly speckled lens.

Many of the pieces are immediately emotive: Jeff Mermelstein’s voyeuristic snapshot of New York after 9/11, for example, shows the city covered by a grainy layer of white and grey powder. As Sean O’Hagan writes:  “Without the occasional flash of coloured detritus, the ash is so dense, it would be easy to assume this is a black and white image.” Destruction is a key theme, also examined in Robert Burley’s documentation of demolition, and in the work of Shomei Tomatsu, who provides a stark look at the deformation caused by the atomic bomb. A warped glass bottle forms a frighteningly effective analogy for loss of human life.

Elsewhere, journalistic output receives attention. A shot of Benito Mussolini’s car, a decade after he was captured and executed, depicts a sense of abandonment and uncleanliness. The central concept highlights the immaterial passing of time, with an encroaching lack of consideration or human contact. There is fragility here, too, and historical contingency. Facile as it may sound, a careless swipe of a hand – or a deliberate, caring clean – could have completely changed the afterlives of the objects on show. These photographs capture a thick build-up of moments that, for wide ranging and fascinating reasons, nobody chose to erase or re-write.

A Handful of Dust runs until 3 September at Whitechapel Gallery, London. For more information:

1. Walker Evans, Erosion, Mississippi, 1936. Courtesy of Whitechapel.