Jorge Otero-Pailos is a theoretician of grime, a celebrant of impurity. The architect and preservationist creates a new species of art that dramatises how buildings accumulate a patina of age, and what the obsession of removal says about us as a society. For the ongoing series The Ethics of Dust, Otero-Pailos perfected a technique for removing layers of dirt and pollution with a resin cast. The translucent material creates a second façade, a soiled copy holding the actual detritus of the past in suspension. These casts form the basis of his compelling installations. Otero-Pailos has worked on structures as different – and as historic in their importance – as Westminster Hall (in London’s Houses of Parliament), Trajan’s Column (in the Victoria & Albert Museum) and the Doge’s Palace in Venice. His recent instal- lation for the Chicago Architecture Biennial brought together elements of several of his projects. In a time of intense debate about the keeping of monuments and their charged relation to the present, the importance of his work is especially urgent.

Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix fa ory in 2008. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone
Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix fa ory in 2008. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone


DAMN°: Tell me where the inspiration for the project came from and the idea behind it.

Jorge Otero-Pailos: One of my immediate inspirations was seeing a photograph by Jeff Wall of working women cleaning a panorama in Paris [Restoration, 1993]. It showed work that no one sees, a type of invisible art. It made me think that as preservationists, we do work that, if done well, is meant to disappear. That is the social expectation to which our profession often conforms. Our duty is to take care of historic buildings and monuments, and in most people’s mind, that means first of all cleaning them to reveal them in their ‘original’ glory. Think of André Malraux’s postwar vision of a white Paris.

The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008. Collection of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone
The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano, 2008. Collection of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy. Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone


DAMN°: Or Rome at the Millennium.

J O-P: Certainly since World War II, urban beautification campaigns have turned to cleaning monuments as a default position. It is as if we all agree monuments should be clean. But what is so wrong with them being dirty? Why is the dust that settles on monuments considered so alien to them, as if it was an impurity? And if we think of dust as an impurity, does that mean we think of cultural monuments as purity? I find that trou- bling. I wanted to understand this better and so decided to begin cleaning myself.

There are many ways to clean. For me it is the how, as much as the what. I’m critical of the practice of throwing away the dust cleaned from monuments, because I see it as affirming an unspoken idea of culture that cannot free itself from obsessions with purity and cleanliness. Most people say they celebrate cultural hybridity. If that’s true, then perhaps we should find a better way to treat monuments than to cast away their so-called impurities, one that reflects that ideal of hybridity. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in keeping the dust in a way that remains connected visually to the monument, such that the two can never truly be free from each other.

The Ethics of Dust: Maison de Famille Louis Vuitton, 2015 Panel #7 of the heptaptych Louis Vuitton Collection. Photo courtesy of Louis Vuitton / Grégoire Vieille
The Ethics of Dust: Maison de Famille Louis Vuitton, 2015 Panel #7 of the heptaptych Louis Vuitton Collection. Photo courtesy of Louis Vuitton / Grégoire Vieille


DAMN°: The translucency of your installations, the way light passes through them and makes the removed dust visible, provokes awe, almost reverence. It also suggests that something important is at stake.

J O-P: I’m very interested in how art can invite us to see dust, matter, other artworks, even the world around us, differently. To make art from what is normally wiped off is to reconsider what we don’t typically want to see. Dust needs a medium in order to be seen, and light happens to be a very good one. The light makes the dust appear in a new way, the same but different from how it was on the monument.

DAMN°: Do monuments really need to be clean?

J O-P: Monuments don’t need our care. We care for them in order to care for ourselves. Dominick LaCapra’s work on transference comes to mind here, but also Donald Winnicott’s analysis of the role that objects play in helping us sort out what is real. I underscore ‘us’, because for Winnicott reality is socially constructed through our behaviour towards certain objects. Our care for them expresses what we think is real. When I clean monuments, I am trying to sort out what we collectively think is real. Typically we think of the architecture as the ‘real’ monument and the dust as ‘not really’ the monument. Through my installations the dust acquires a different value and presence. I think of dust as a supplement to the monuments, in Derrida’s terminology. It is an apparently peripheral aspect that helps us see to the heart of things. We think we know what a monument is, what it means. I want to question that.

DAMN°: You have suggested that as much as preservation is about the past, it is just as much about the future.

J O-P: Any art that is truly of the present is a negotiation between the past and the future. What we determine ought to be done with a building is a statement about how we want the future to regard it, and through that monument how we want the future to regard us. It’s an expression of collective value.

DAMN°: You spent – to take one example – six years working on the cleaning of Westminster Hall. You must have made some unexpected discoveries about its dirt, about its reality.

J O-P: Every project has yielded tremendous discoveries, but in Westminster Hall I learned something overarching. I thought I was working on the monument, the building, but I realised that the dust I was cleaning actually came from the sky. The sky was shedding it onto the building. I began to think that the real monument was the atmosphere itself, the medium in which monuments exist and we ourselves exist. I have come to think of these in relation to each other, not as distinct or separate or exclusive. Collecting the dust of Westminster Hall helped me start relating to the atmosphere as something real, that is something socially constructed. Sounds dumb, but just like fish must not think about water very much, most of us don’t think about the dusty atmosphere we need to live.

The Ethics of Dust: Maison de Famille Louis Vuitton, 2015 Detail of the casting process / Louis Vuitton Collection. Photo courtesy of Jorge Otero-Pailos
The Ethics of Dust: Maison de Famille Louis Vuitton, 2015 Detail of the casting process / Louis Vuitton Collection. Photo courtesy of Jorge Otero-Pailos


DAMN°: Are we talking about a kind of symbiotic relation?

J O-P: Think of it this way. I worked on a project in Murcia, Spain, which involved the cleaning of dust from an ancient silver mine. New Carthage, as the Romans who dug the mine, called it. The Romans needed silver for coinage, and so dug mines or took over mines across the empire. They ran out of silver about 400 AD, which probably hastened the collapse of the empire. In any case, I took pollution from this re-opened place. I found out that scientists working in Greenland had found in their core ice samples traces of the same dust from the silver mines in Spain. How could this be? I wondered. The Romans had already polluted the atmosphere long before anyone thought of it as a specific problem, and the dust was 2000 years old. It still exists. You could argue that this dust is ancient Rome’s greatest, most enduring and extensive monument.

DAMN°: This is the understanding you are trying to promote, of the interconnectedness of what we see as permanent and impermanent. Perhaps we need to reverse what we a ach the terms to.

J O-P: Even if everything we built as a civilisation were to be wiped off the face of the planet, our pollution is what we would inevitably leave behind.

The Ethics of Dust: Westminster Hall, London, 2016 An Artangel commission. Photo: Marcus J Leith
The Ethics of Dust: Westminster Hall, London, 2016 An Artangel commission. Photo: Marcus J Leith


The Ethics of Dust: Westminster Hall, London, 2016 An Artangel commission. Photo: Marcus J Leith
The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column, 2015 Commissioned by the V&A Museum, London. Photo courtesy of Peter Kelleher and the V&A. The installation is made of conservation latex that has been used to ‘clean’ the hollow inside of the cast of Trajan’s Column, the largest object in the V&A. It shows the dust and dirt accumulated over decades in the usually unseen interior of the column, hanging in the space next to the cast.


This article appeared in DAM65. Order your personal copy.