While in New York, we stopped off at the Museum of Arts and Design to see Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design. Part of a series of exhibitions that “explore the intersection of traditional or unusual materials and techniques as viewed through the lens of contemporary art and design,” Swept Away features painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, performances, and installations which confront “the ephemeral nature of art and life, the quality and content of memory, issues of loss and disintegration, and the detritus of human existence” through the incorporation of fugitive and often discarded materials.

The exhibition is thoughtfully installed, with edifying wall labels featuring the artists’ own words. However the most interesting of the works on display are those made by artists who are able to sidestep the temptation to create literal, simplistic, or clichéd representations of decay and its moral equivalent, decadence. For example, a few too many may have been included purely for a novel and/or illustrative use of dust, sand, or soot—and perhaps one skull-based work would have been enough. Nonetheless, any redundancies are more than made up for by the wit, elegance, and/or ephemeral beauty of the works which do succeed in transcending mere physicality to become something more than the sum of their materials lists.



Two such works represent the primal human urge to write or draw on or with the material of Earth itself—one through the digging up of lines into the ground at a massive scale, the other through the building up of lines with sand at the comparatively intimate scale of the table. Vik Muniz’s well-known Earthworks, begun in 2002, are an absurdist contemporary take on the ancient geoglyphs scattered mysteriously about the Earth, the most familiar of which are the Nazca Lines in Peru. Utilizing witty, kitschy or banal icons and illustrations from digital and popular sources such as giant footprints, a ruler, an electrical outlet, and a magnifying glass, Muniz creates an updated inventory of earthly signs advertising our society’s technological obsessions to the universe at large.



In contrast, Cui Fei’s calligraphic gestures do not represent an explicit image, text, or message, but rather express the abstract beauty of writing through the simple yet powerful recontextualization of natural materials such as twigs, leaves, thorns, seeds, and sand. In so doing, her compositions harness the energy of nature within human visual and conceptual systems of communication, evoking the archaic and intertwined qualities of both. (The top image is from the exhibition; a similar work is featured below.) Although vastly different with regard to ambition and effect, the works of both Cui Fei and Vik Muniz are made with erasure in mind—Cui Fei’s through the deinstallers’ sweep at exhibition’s end, Muniz’s through the sweeping effects of nature and weather on the Earth’s surface itself.



Two other works employ the volatile and consuming aspects of fire as a way to express complementary concepts of potentiality and impermanence. Cai Guo-Qiang has become well known for his work utilizing gunpowder and fireworks, materials which create spectacular displays of explosive force counterbalanced by poignant aftereffects of fragility and/or fading away. His mesmerizing video documenting Black Ceremony from late 2011 bears repeated viewing, as computer-controlled fireworks burst and bloom across the clear blue desert sky over Doha. It makes for a surprising and awe-inspiring series of airborne images.



Antonio Riello uses fire in an altogether different way, to ceremoniously burn a personal collection of beloved books. Ensconced within individually labeled blown glass vessels, the collected ashes still bear some of the character and colour of the books they used to be. Assembled within a striking wall-based installation, the effect is one of crematory urns displayed in a columbarium, albeit far more transparent, quirky, and lighthearted in form and concept; these are books, not bodies after all. However, seeing even just books reduced to small piles of ash causes one to question what may remain of human aspiration and achievement once the physical trappings fall away and we are left only with the limitations and potential of collective imagination and memory.



Other standouts in the exhibition include Alexandre Orion’s reverse graffiti video, Ossário Art-Less Pollution from 2006–11 (a case in which skull imagery is employed to great effect), and Phoebe Cummings’ raw earth sculpture, Delusion of Grandeur, from 2011 (both works viewable through video links below). Swept Away is on view at the Museum of Art and Design through August 12, 2012.

More information on the exhibition can be found at the Museum of Art and Design website

Read “Beautiful Dirt,” Allison Meier’s take on Swept Away for Hyperallergic
Read “Accumulated Meaning: Swept Away at the Museum of Arts and Design,” exhibition review at Core77

More about Vik Muniz on the artist’s website
More on Cui Fei on her website

Nice review and slideshow featuring Cai Guo-Qiang’s Black Ceremony and other works from his exhibition in Qatar at Artinfo
See more on Cai Guo-Qiang’s website
More about Antonio Riello (it appears this glass work is atypical for him) on his website

Video documenting Alexandre Orion’s fantastic reverse graffiti project
More about Alexandre Orion on his website
See a video featuring the eloquent Phoebe Cummings on the MAD website
See work from Cummings’ 2012 residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum

images, from top to bottom:
Cui Fei,
Tracing the Origin VIII-III, 2012, sand, installation view from the Museum of Arts and Design, courtesy of the artist; Chambers Fine Art, New Yorkphoto by Shani K Parsons
Vik Muniz,
Outlet (Fabrica, Iron Mine), 2005, digital C-print, courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio, New York; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; Envelope (The Sarzedo Drawings), 2002 (not in exhibition)
Cui Fei,
Tracing the Origin VIII (and detail), 2010, sand, dimensions variable, installation view from The Warehouse Gallery, photos by David Broda (not in exhibition)
Cai Guo-Qiang,
Black Ceremony (Pyramid), 2011, video, 8300 black smoke shells fitted with computer chips; videography by Zhang Keming, A Dabisc, and Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art; editing by Zhang Keming and Cai Studio; commissioned by Mathaf, Arab Museum of Art, Doha; courtesy of the artist
Antonio Riello,
Ashes to Ashes (and detail), 2009, blown glass, ash from burned books, courtesy of the artist, Venice Projects, Venice, photos by Shani K Parsons (installation) and Core77 (detail)