Sunday, 10 October 2010

The History of Shit

“Queen Victoria may well have been a dry-fart; but this is not why Victorian London boasted the most perfect urinals and celebrated the burial of excrement in exquisite latrines. One is more likely to find the answer in the correspondence of Prince Albert, and in the particular attention he paid to human strecus. Not unlike others at the helm of Empires, he deemed it a fertilizer unmatched in quality and price, and one eminently worthy of the highest esteem- an esteem bordering on religious contemplation.” Pg 61, The History of Shit, Dominique Laporte

I was recently commissioned to produce an artwork for the Wellcome Collection’s forthcoming show “Dirt” which opens 24th March 2011. On being approached to propose something for the commission I was instantly reminded of a book I encountered about 6 years ago by Dominique Laporte called “ History of Shit”. Laporte has a unique and exhilarating style that meanders between, history, philosophy, linguistics and theory. He creates a radical text suggesting the importance of human waste in forming the organisation of cities and the development of capitalism. He highlights that as much as we wish to ignore dirt we are intrinsically linked to it emphasising the currency and value it equates to within our society.

So my focus became the idea of profit developed out of waste and in particular the commercialisation of waste in Victorian London, from the dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road to the civil engineering achievements of Joseph Bazelgette’s Sewage System.

The dust heap of Gray’s Inn Road was a mile high by a mile wide and became a source of great fortune for many Victorian Londoners. It was immortalised in Charles Dicken’s “Our Mutual Friend’s” in which one of the main characters “Mr.Boffin” nicknamed “The Golden Dustman” had gained his wealth from the dust heap. As I researched the heap I discovered that it wasn’t just individuals that profited from the heap but many industries had been born out of it. The industry I was particularly excited by was London Brick-making; dust, ash and cinders were taken from the heap and mixed with mud from nearby brickfields to produce the humble brick

I had recently completed a project called “Decosa, Tradition, Stockholm Keifer/pin” which focused on a DIY material that I had discovered in the Czech Republic. Decosa is a thin polystyrene sheeting printed with a fake wood effect. I am very interested in the ritual of DIY as a new form of religion in contemporary society so building blocks were fresh in my mind. The brick seemed very appealing as a rudimentary building material that forms the basis of our civilisation yet is pretty much overlooked and taken for granted.

As I read on about the history of bricks I saw a relationship to the ideas I had read about in Laporte, the value to be found in rubbish and shit was immense and was represented by the brick. I was interested in the bricks importance in building up our city as well as their importance in the development of Bazelgette’s incredible sewage system which pumped the Great Stink of 1858 out of the city centre. His system involved 181 miles of tunnelling, and one of the four major pumping stations in Bazalgette’s scheme was Crossness. This iconic building nicknamed “The Cathedral on the Marshses” bears testimony to Victorian opulence and the genius of the industrial revolution. It is a site of historical importance in relation to “Laid to Rest” and will play a pivotal role in the development of this project.