Now Wash Your Hands

When does cleanliness become sterility, and hygiene inhumanity? A short history of dirt and germs in contemporary art, from the Summer 2015 issue

By Chris Fite-Wassilak

Vadim Zakharov, Restaurant Philosophers’ Ship, 2014 (installation view, Progress and Hygiene, 2015, Zacheta, Warsaw). Photo: Marek Krzyzanek. Courtesy the artist Dieter Roth, Staple Cheese (A Race), 1970 (installation view, Eugenia Butler Gallery, Los Angeles, 1970). © estate of Eugenia P. Butler. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London & New York Benedict Drew, The Persuaders, 2014 (installation view, Adelaide International 2014). Photo: Sam Noonan. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London Lever House, New York, photographed in 2009. Photo: Samuel North. Licensed under Creative Commons Ettore Sottsass, Bacterio pattern, 1978 Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Elizabeth Taylor and Hershey’s Syrup Can, 2006, photographic colour-print on gloss paper, 183 × 125 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London & New York Heather Phillipson, immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds, 2014 (installation view, Bunker259, New York, 2014). Courtesy the artist and Bunker259, New York

During August 1903 at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, the star of the packed-out shows was a bunch of parasites. As part of a series of short films called ‘The Unseen World’, which included among other things a fly on its back juggling a small ball, the most popular feature was The Cheese Mites (1903). A man sits down to an outdoor picnic and happens to use the magnifying glass he’s been reading with to examine his piece of Stilton. Audiences, gasping and laughing, were then treated to almost two full minutes close-up with dozens of small crablike mites crawling around. The film is considered one of the first nature documentaries, but it also had a few unintended results: the sales of home microscopes (which often included a sachet of mites for ‘starter kits’) soared, and cheese sales were also affected enough for the cheese industry to lobby to have the film banned. It also spurred on the founding of the Institute of Hygiene in London, which helped shape later food-safety regulations that specified cheese as a potential threat.

Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Elizabeth Taylor and Hershey’s Syrup Ca, from Summer 2015 Feature Hygiene Wash your Hands

Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Elizabeth Taylor and Hershey’s Syrup Can, 2006, photographic colour-print on gloss paper, 183 × 125 cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London & New York

The ripples of The Cheese Mites, both its popularity and its regulatory consequences, show us how visibility became one of the key factors of an emerging twentieth-century modernity. The smooth structures of glass and light to come would, after all, be clean and safe places, free from such germs. (The sheer front of sealed windows in Lever House featured New York City’s first window-cleaning scaffolds, purpose-built into the architecture.) While the insights of nineteenth-century figures like John Snow and Louis Pasteur increased public health and life expectancy, the demands and expectations of a hygienist ideology have steadily grown: we’re cleaner, safer, healthier than ever before. And we’ve got an art that (literally) reflects that: prim, sanitised metal sculptures à la Kapoor or Koons, giant shiny shapes and surfaces that require no small amount of polishing, shining and cleaning in order to function.

In 1974, philosopher of history Ivan Illich wrote, ‘Medical civilization is planned and organized to kill pain, eliminate sickness, and to struggle against death. These are new goals, which have never before been guidelines for social life.’ Or, as he put it, paraphrasing Goya, ‘New medicine tries to engineer the dreams of reason.’ It’s cleanliness, rather than dirt, that seems to haunt the twentieth century, spreading uncontrollably into the twenty-first and beyond. It’s no coincidence that E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the science-fiction author who founded the ‘space opera’ genre during the 1920s, was by profession a food engineer, spending most of his life making pastry and doughnut mixtures that could last indefinitely. In how many science-fiction futures are humans depicted as hairless, wearing white, padding through gleaming, antiseptic hallways? How far off is that from our minimal homes and slick galleries? Our projective desires of wellbeing and progress continue to be intimately linked with ideologies that we like to think we’ve moved beyond. Or as Paul Virilio put it in The Administration of Fear (2012), ‘The new humanity desired by the totalitarians has become a techno-scientific reality in its own right!’

Dieter Roth, Staple Cheese (A Race), from Summer 2015 Feature Hygiene Wash your Hands

Dieter Roth, Staple Cheese (A Race), 1970 (installation view, Eugenia Butler Gallery, Los Angeles, 1970). © estate of Eugenia P. Butler. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, London & New York

Picking at this scab has a history in contemporary art. We can feel the attempt to confront and confound this unsoiled facade in the burbling paint and bodily fluids of the Vienna Actionists, Carolee Schneeman’s dearly fondled raw chicken orgy Meat Joy (1964) or Paul McCarthy’s cracking into giant paint tubes of ‘Shit’. Dieter Roth’s classic gesture of a bad guest Staple Cheese (A Race) (1970) involved filling the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles with 37 suitcases, each holding a different type of cheese. Over the month that they were left out in spring temperatures, various stenches of rot filled the room and juices began to seep onto the floor, along with a considerable fly infestation. Public health officials tried to shut the gallery, but Butler bravely argued that it ‘represented the life-cycle’, and it was allowed to stay open. Roth allegedly collected some of the dead flies, referring to them as the exhibition’s ‘true audience’.

But there’s also a quieter lineage. One of the first patterns created by Ettore Sottsass in 1978 for the plastic laminates that would cover the forthcoming Memphis furniture designs was a set of oblong, squiggly blobs. The Bacterio patterns came to be one of the group’s most recognisable: family dressers, bedside lamps and chairs covered with a flimsy, industrial surface that was honest and upfront about the fact that it was crawling with germs, bacteria and countless microbes. The Critical Art Ensemble took this to the next level, turning their wayward-secondary-school-science-teacher approach towards a series of projects that were designed to echo and imitate government-run germ warfare tests on civilians in San Francisco and the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Turning loose a harmless strain of bacteria in central Leipzig, Target Deception (2007) used human guinea pigs to see how far the supposed contagion could spread. Not far, as it turns out, though their main point had been to call attention to the inefficacy of biological warfare. But they were close to another mark: the projects were carried out while an FBI charge of ‘bioterrorism’ against CAE member Steve Kurtz was still ongoing, a case that was eventually dropped. The CAE and Sottsass gestures call attention to the patent fact that we are incessantly surrounded by, host and home to countless beings that we might consciously think of as ‘unhygienic’, whether we want to be or not.

Heather Phillipson, immediately and for a short time balloons, from Summer 2015 Feature Hygiene Wash your Hands

Heather Phillipson, immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds, 2014 (installation view, Bunker259, New York, 2014). Courtesy the artist and Bunker259, New York

Perhaps pushed by the delve into the digital, and the accompanying reactive return to the body, the spectre of the hygienic nemesis, as Illich called it, has been more readily apparent recently, as a way of thinking about the actual politics of the body without idealising it. Progress and Hygiene, a large group show staged last year in Warsaw’s National Gallery of Art, attempted to take on eugenics and the dark underbelly of modern medicine. For several younger artists currently working in the UK, it’s part of an eerily unsettled atmosphere, an attempt to draw attention to the sterile vacuum we’re hemming ourselves in to; you can sense it in the oozing heads and gloopy surfaces that run though Benedict Drew’s installations, or the imitation plant veneer and manipulated, artificial surfaces that abound in the work of Rachel Pimm. In Heather Phillipson’s short video immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds (2014), the innocuous Muzak keeps getting interrupted by an alarmed notice: “Now wash your hands”. A pair of hands places itself in front of a picture of the sea, rubbing vigorously. Another set of hands appears on top, pinching the surface like a touch screen before white liquid trickles down, covering the screen. “You must apply soap liberally,” the narrator admonishes. “More. More. Still not enough. Do you want the germs to win?!” Slipping on the double-entendres and mixed metaphors, through the fluids and orifices foisted upon us, a sense of ridiculousness of this state of humanity riots throughout Phillipson’s poetry, videos and installations, looking at self-denial about our animal essences, and our pernicious clinging to the illogical boundaries that enable us to walk around as clothed, sensible, rational members of society. Her work, by implication, stresses how we’ve merged our sense of a regulated environment with our very sense of being. What these artists ask is for us to look again, with a bit of dirt in our eye. 

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue.