To create The Ethics of Dust, Jorge Otero-Pailos worked in parallel with Parliament’s restoration and stone cleaning project, which allowed him to eventually retrieve the latex used to clean the hall. It is this that now hangs in the space, directly in front of the wall it reflects. At 50 metres in length and over 25 metres in height, it is striking to both the eyes and the nostrils, with its faint but distinctive rubbery smell adding an extra, disconcerting dimension.
The latex cast echoes the brickwork behind it – now an unblemished shade of cream – but it is its dirt, which appears as drips or splatters in places, that really stands out. The grime speaks of a history going back hundreds of years: Westminster Hall was completed in 1099. As Artangel points out in the information accompanying the show, the wall may well have held “the dust, soot and dirt generated by events including the Second World War blitz and the Great Smog of 1952”. There are also the countless ceremonies, banquets, trials – including that of Guy Fawkes in 1606 and King Charles I in 1649 – that may have impregnated the walls with dust, grime and smoke.
All this considered, the amount of dirt lifted via the cast actually seems pretty slight. In this, The Ethics of Dust is a story of the intricacies of conservation as much as of history or of art. It is the second time Otero-Pailos, who is associate professor and director of historic preservation at Columbia University, has created this kind of work, having previously made a latex cast of the 14th century Doge’s Palace in Venice, which was displayed during the Venice Biennale in 2009. The title of the Artangel work is drawn from John Ruskin’s 1866 publication The Ethics of the Dust, in which he laid out the intellectual foundations of modern conservation, arguing against cleaning in the 19th century when the available blunt tools would have damaged the stone irrevocably. Presumably Ruskin would have approved of these modern day acts of conservation, even if they remove aspects of the building’s story along the way.
Instead of conservation, it is the unavoidable political associations that make this artwork feel so urgent to today, however. Otero-Pailos has been working with the restoration team in creating The Ethics of Dust over a period of five years, so its arrival at Westminster this week is clearly far from spontaneous and therefore feels a little uncanny. Like a piece of raw, torn skin hanging in the space, it echoes the painful rifts and ruptions currently taking place politically in the UK. Its reminder of the long, turbulent history of the space could – and perhaps should – prove reassuring, though presently it is the stains and dirt that speak most urgently. The metaphor here may not be a subtle one, but it is certainly apt.
The Ethics of Dust is on display at the Houses of Parliament until September 1. Entry is free but tickets should be booked in advance at artangel.org.uk/ethics-of-dust.