Seriously, ‘The Ethics of Dust’ is a terrible name for a work of art. Yes, it’s taken from something written by John Ruskin, but out of context it sounds like a philosophical treatise by Kim and Aggie (‘How morally clean is your house?’). Fortunately, Spanish preservationist and artist Jorge Otero-Pailos makes better art than his titles suggest. And for this latest Artangel commission, he’s filled Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament with one of the best sculptures you’ll see this summer.
The idea is simple: in the process of cleaning this Unesco world heritage site’s walls, the artist covered them in latex and peeled it off to trap centuries of pollution, dust and dirt. The result is two huge sheets hanging from the rafters in the 900-year-old hall. And it’s absolutely stunning. Stark and minimal, but literally full of history.
In all this dust and muck you’ll find centuries of political wrangling, hundreds of years of decisions that have shaped the fate of Great Britain. It’s like he’s peeled layers of skin of the walls and hung them from the ceiling. Disraeli’s dandruff, Cromwell’s skin flakes, John Major’s ancient, coughed-up saliva – it’s all probably here, glued into these giant latex curtains.
The work has to fight against the grandeur of this ancient space, the flocks of jabbering school kids and the occasional panicked MP rushing by. It survives – thrives, even – because of its beautiful simplicity.
Hanging there, glowing, it looks like some ancient parchment or a lost religious artefact, Westminster’s own Turin Shroud. But the god that’s been cast here is politics; it’s the history of this country, its ups and downs, its long-gone empire. As Brexit pushes us inexorably towards isolation, these hanging sheets feel like a funeral shroud for a sad, lonely little island.