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Ian Haig: You're just dirt

(Catalogue text for the Dirt Factory, 2006)

Like everyone, I ate cornflakes growing up. Little did I realise lurking behind those crunchy bowls of golden goodness was a perverse health fanaticism at work in the form of cornflakes creator Dr John Harvey Kellogg. The Kellogg story is well documented, perhaps not so well known is Kellogg’s daily pre occupation with enemas, experimental bowel surgery and the role of cornflakes as both a form of roughage for sluggish bowels and an anti masturbation food – this was 1890 after all. The theory being, the pressure of constipation on ones genitals would invite masturbation, therefore increased roughage in the diet in the form of cornflakes could alleviate the constipation, and masturbation would also be eradicated.

Kellogg’s bowel training health camp The San , prescribed a range of bowel health regimes to rid the body of the most despised of all evil: constipation. This was at a time when the theory of autointoxication was the flavour of the day, a belief that constipation would eventually lead to toxins from ones impacted faeces to be reabsorbed back into the body, and lead to disease.

There is also a large autobiographical element in these works, with my unknowing collaborator: a tape worm from Mexico city and one particular undercooked steak, the home of microscopic worm eggs. Later I purged my unwelcomed hitchhiker to the depths of the colonic irrigation tube never to be seen again. Such an episode lead me to contemplate gastrointestinal and bodily transformations, to fantasise of alien takeovers and anal probing. My body was not my own, but merely a host for the most primitive of all life forms: the parasite.

My other collaborator in producing these works was a humble rat, who took a particular shine to fresh cornflake sludge and preceded to eat away at the sculptures every night. I mention this only because the rat is an ideal partner in creating a project called The dirt factory , the carrier of disease, infection and universally despised as a one who lives amongst filth.

But the bigger picture here is really less to do with cornflakes, rats, constipation, colonic irrigation, worms or masturbation per se and more to do with undermining a belief system and the values we ascribe to it. In this case the wholesome, iconic, family goodness of the cornflakes breakfast cereal and its real world underbelly of a perverse sexual-health psychopathology. I am interested in what is bubbling beneath the surface of that which we take for granted as ‘normal’, I am attracted to cornflakes because of its crazed back story of extremes, of healthy food together with unhealthy thoughts. I can’t resist the association of cornflakes and its 1950′s Leave it to Beaver world of crew cuts, lemonade, family labradors and glasses of milk together with chronic constipation and wanking off. I am also attracted to cornflakes for its banal reality, its omnipresent sameness as food transformed into domestic art material, and its symbolic value as abject matter (a breakfast cereal for cleansing ones bowel and dirty thoughts), in the form of cornflake shit, cornflake vomit and cornflake diarrhea.

The other story here is fanaticism, in particular the health fanaticism of inner cleansing, de-toxification, colonic irrigation, enemas and the desire to eradicate ones body of internal toxins and pathologies at all costs. Contemporary body cleansing and the detox industry have taken on almost evangelical status, not dissimilar to Kellogg’s day, whereby a clean body on the inside represents a clean mind and spirit, a soul worthy of entry into God’s Kingdom. Beauty itself, is a parable for a soul that it pure and uncorrupted, ugliness on the other hand can only mean a contaminated and polluted soul.

Everywhere one looks these days there are promotions for seven day detox programs, healthy pink colons, glossy ad campaigns which talk of inner beauty, of glowing from within and of beauty beginning on the inside. Indeed the origins of colonic irrigation devices saw them advertised as ‘the internal bath’. Detox and disease extends back to medieval medicine’s preoccupation with elemental bodily fluids or ‘humours’ of blood, bile and phlegm. With blood letting and purges aiming to expel a harmful surplus of a humour from the body.

Detox ultimately has its basis in removing dirt from our system, of returning our bodies to a ‘natural’ state, as we first entered the world, free of corruption and the everyday dirt that has built up. Detoxing and cleansing becomes a form of bodily transformation and metamorphosis. The detox industry is embodied with the rhetoric of transformation and change, where one can literally be reborn, transformed, to a healthier, younger, cleaner version of themselves. Detoxing has become a way not only of transforming, but of controlling our bodies, which are normally out of control, open and exposed to all manner of disease and sickness.

Detox and cleansing, can be seen as a denial of dirt. Ultimately, cleansing, shitting and dirt are a reminder of what we shall one day all become: rotting and decaying organic matter, a reminder of death, and the inability to contemplate ourselves not as living, breathing beings but that which we despise, dirt. The ultimate bodily transformation is literally to become dirt, like everyone your natural destiny is to become worm-food

The dirt factory therefore becomes an analogy for the human body, you are dirt, a perfect machine engineered for producing filth, our bodies are shit makers, transformation machines and dirt producers. However the idea of dirt (represented symbolically here as cornflake sludge and brown shit paint) and the body have other resonances. Dirt like shit, is beneath us, a metaphor for all things low, the dirty underclass, the filthy beggar, the residue under the fingernails of the blue collar labourer. Extended to dirt as a signifier of low culture, unclean and unsophisticated, base level cultural forms. Pornography is ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ movies, comics and magazines that are preoccupied with sex or horror and violence are ‘rubbish’, a state of decay that is fast on its way to becoming dirt. Indeed dirt becomes the perfect symbol for all that is low, unworthy and useless.

One spends their life avoiding dirt, of eradicating it, removing it from ones body, house, and clothes. Taken to extremes are those notions of ethnic cleansing, of removing the racial dirt from ones lives. The ultimate symbol of dirt removal being the toilet, and further the colonic irrigation machine, a kind of hyper toilet designed to literally make dirt/shit disappear out of your life. Not just last nights meal, but the entire contents of your colon, the dirt you never knew you had. To call someone scum, is to serve the ultimate insult of toilet and bathroom dirt. You strive to ‘rise above it’ (the dirt), through education, religion, art, but at the end of the day like everyone else your shit still stinks. You are dirt.

This pre occupation with eradicating dirt is applied not only to bodies but can be extended to the white washed walls of the austere space of the gallery which like a bathroom and toilet promotes the idea of a clean well lit space (already taken by art critic Dave Hickey and his gallery A Clean Well-Lighted Place in the 1970′s 2 ). An antiseptic, sterile site, the white cube is as much about offering a ‘neutral’ space as it is for proving an environment for maximum scrutiny for any potential residue, dirt and scum, which like the bathroom can be quickly eradicated.

Dirt is the bastard son to contemporary art’s platonic cleanliness, its ‘sophistication’ good design, and cultural virtuousness. The aesthetic and ideas of dirt provide for a messier, more ambiguous and murky engagement with the world around us. Ultimately The dirt factory is a work that plays with notions of aesthetics, culture, art and the body, which is all about dichotomies: the clean/unclean, healthy/unhealthy, low/high, distasteful/tasteful and the beautiful/ugly. The notion of dirt produces a loaded symbolic value of the other, the abject, the unknown and the alien. It is for these reason’s that dirt, or dirt-like material in the context of the gallery, becomes a potent abject signifier of ‘worthlessness’, in this sense dirt is the left over, the slop, the discarded, the cultural residue. ‘For what is useful about art is precisely it’s uselessness, its impracticality. In a world dominated by pragmatism, it guarantees a freer symbolic enterprise in creating much needed fetishes’ 3 with the perfect expression of uselessness being dirt and shit.

Ian Haig

1 Dirt, Street Hassle, Lou Reed (1978)
2 Hickey was director of Clean Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin, Texas , which opened in 1967
3 Gerardo Mosquera, Notes on Shit, Art and Cloaca, http://www.cloaca.be