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Jorge Otero-Pailos

The Ethics of Dust

Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster, London
29th June 2016 - 1st September 2016


Jorge Otero-Pailos’s The Ethics of Dust is a site-specific art installation series that reifies invisible elements of grime—natural byproducts of a structure’s long history of human use—into a material form. Through this attempt, he interpolates cultural meanings into materials that are regarded as waste in built heritage conservation—dust, dirt, and other pollutants. Commissioned by a London-based arts organisation, Artangel, Otero-Pailosdeveloped a uniqueEthics of Dustinstallation for Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster (2016), a structure that is more than one thousand years old. 


Stemming from a restoration and stone-cleaning project at the House of Parliament in the UK[1], the work consisted of a fifty-metre-long and six-metre-high translucent skin of latex hanging down from the ceiling of the hall, which captured surface pollution and dust accumulated over hundreds of years (see Photo 1). The latex sheets were placed side by side, a few metres away from the wall. When visitors walked alone the hall, they could see clearly the dirt captured in the latex on one side, in contrast to the cleaned-up stone wall on the other side. The dirt contained particles corrosive to the stone, which were necessary to be removed for the sake of conservation. The translucent latex was retrieved from a non-intrusive cleaning process of the interior walls of the Westminster Hall.


As the oldest building in the Parliament, Westminster Hall has been a historic landmark bearing witness to important historical events in the UK. There is no doubt that the dirt is important to this special place, which has captured evidence of history, and it should not have been recklessly wiped away. In the exhibition pamphlet written to accompany the exhibition, Otero-Pailos explained that “Westminster Hall dates back to 1099 and its limestone walls have held the dust, soot and dirt from events including the Great Smog of 1952 and the trials of Guy Fawkes in 1606 and King Charles I in 1649. Westminster Hall is used for public ceremonies and lyings-in-state, most recently HRH the Queen Mother in 2002.”


Otero-Pailos devoted the work to John Ruskin, who was pioneering art critic and artist in his own right in addition to being an influential thinker and social reformer in the Victorian era. The title of the series, The Ethics of Dust,comes from John Ruskin’s book of the same name as a tribute to the visionary, whose thought is still relevant in the 21st century.


A historic figure who left a significant mark to the field of architectural conservation, Ruskin, as stated in his extended essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture, was a staunch opponent to all forms of building restoration and heavily criticised it as a spurious change that damaged the integrity and value of the historic building. He advocated that historic buildings should be allowed to age by natural causes. Based on that, he urged for a minimum intervention to historic buildings. Instead, he urged constant repair and maintenance in order to keep them in good order. 


“Ruskin greatly admired Westminster Hall and the Doge’s Palace: both were seats of governments ruling vast naval empires, often threatened with demolition and ultimately saved by restoration. Ruskin argued against cleaning both buildings with the blunt tools available at the time and went on to lay the intellectual foundations for approaching the conservation of historic building today,” Otero-Pailos explained. Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy, was the location of another site-specific installment in his series, The Ethics of Dust


Jorge Otero-Pailos is Professor and Director of Historic Preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture in New York. His work intersects contemporary art, architecture, and conservation. Speaking about his enthusiasm for conserving waste and his thoughts on The Ethics of Dust, Otero-Pailos (2016) said, “we are at a moment of environmental change and pollution is one of the ever-present man-made products out there. It is going to be around for millennia, so coming to grips with it culturally is important. People in the sciences and technology are working on ways to lower our carbon footprint and that is all well and good, but I do not think that any of that technology will be adopted unless there is a radical cultural shift in the way that were appreciate pollution. The museum, cultural producers, artists, preservationists have an important role to play in opening up this discussion.”[2]


“The concepts that we have for preservation are very old. The concept of monument is at least one hundred and fifty years old; the concept of authenticity is over one hundred years old; reversibility is eighty or so years old; intangible heritage is maybe twenty. They do not look at the crisis of the object’s conceptual integrity,” added Jorge Otero-Pailos, remarking on the legislation of built heritage conservation.


Herein lies a core question for built heritage conservation that captures the zeitgeist of our time. Given that nature and culture have become inseparably bound together—both are mutually dependent on each other—the old, distinct, and separable view of nature versus culture is no longer tenable. This also relates to the concept of the Anthropocene epoch, a period of time that refers to when mankind gained the ability to irrevocably alter the world’s systems of ecology, geology, and climate. The term conservation nowadays implies more broadly to choose the best of what culture has to offer for preservation, so as to move forward in an increasingly globalised and radically changing environment with our cultural touchstones remaining intact. In the Anthropocene, should built heritage conservation be just concerned with passing on (as in a time capsule) what we have inherited from the past to the future in attempt to build a continuous sense of collective identity? Or, should built heritage conservation be placed into a broader context of values to be addressed and interrogated for key contemporary concerns (such as long-term environmental sustainability, urban degeneration, social segregation, and inequalities in a globalised world)? 


[1] Experimental Preservation. Edited by Jorge Otero-Pailos, Erik Fenstad Langdalen, and Thordis Arrhenius. Zürich: Lar Müller Publishers, 2016.

[2] UK Parliament. 'The Ethics of Dust' artwork to be displayed in Parliament [online], 2016.


Jorge Otero-Pailos的《塵埃的倫理》(The Ethics of Dust)是場域特定的裝置藝術,將無形的污染元素實體化成物質形態,將被視為文物建築保護中的廢棄物——灰塵和污染物質,注入文化意義。


作為國會大廈最古老的建築,西敏寺大廳見證了許多英國重要歷史事件。毫無疑問,這地方的污垢灰塵也是重要的,保留了歷史的憑據,不應該被魯莽地抹去。在展覽的小冊子中,Otero-Pailos 指出「西敏寺大廳的歷史可以追溯到1099年,它的石灰石牆壁上有塵埃、煙塵和污垢,是1952年的大霧霾、1606年佳·霍士和1649年查理一世的審訊留下的痕跡。 西敏寺大廳用於公共儀式和遺體告別儀式,最近一次是於2002年皇太后喪禮。」

Otero-Pailos 這作品是向約翰羅斯金(John Ruskin)的致敬,羅斯金除了在維多利亞時代是一位有影響力的思想家和社會改革者之外,也是藝術家和先駶的藝術評論家,他的思想在21世紀仍然具影響力。這作品的標題《塵埃的倫理》,取自羅斯金的同名書籍。

羅斯金在建築保育領域留下了重要的印記,正如他的作品《建築的七盞明燈》(The Seven Lamps of Architecture)中所述,建築修復破壞了歷史建築的完整性和價值,故堅決反對任何形式的建築修復,主張歷史建築自然老化。在此基礎上,他敦促對歷史建築進行最低程度的干預,並且只進行持續的維修和保養,以保持其良好狀態。





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