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Samara Mitchell: better out than in

Better out than in – Ian Haig’s the Dirt Factory

Samara Mitchell, 2005

In the waiting room of a small day-spa, two customers fill out a medical form-come-product information list. One of them is staring at a naively painted fresco of cascading sheets bunching up occasionally into something resembling a clean, white anus.

Having handed over my gift voucher I’m face down on a table with pressurised lukewarm water striking what I’m told are my meridians. The treatment I chose upon booking was a rainbow-shower massage. I’m lying there praying that we don’t strike gold at the end of the rainbow.

After a series of frenetic and vigorous rubbings, the massage therapist proceeded to kneed a part of my back that was feeling a bit crunchy.

“What’s that do you think?” I ask.

“Toxins” she says shifting the water so that it goes up my right nostril.

It would seem that every time she came to something that felt a bit ‘twangy’, ‘crunchy’ or ‘lumpy’, that it was those pesky toxins that needed shifting. But where was she shifting them to?

Wandering around between the cornflake-sprayed installations and faecal-like graffiti smears, my first impression of Ian Haig’s exhibition The Dirt Factory , is that Haig is an articulate tinkerer. Using a variety of household media from plumbing to breakfast cereal, Haig fashions found objects into whimsical distillations machines, operated by those spectres of paranoia and disgust that dwell within pipe-dreams of platonic cleanliness.

Ian Haig has a knack for producing uncanny machines with obscure psychic functions and user-unfriendly interfaces. Sculptures such as Bowel Detox Unit and Mutant colonic Irrigation Cornflake Machine are in part a homage to the crackpot ‘therapeutic’ devices invented by John Harvey Kellogg and put to use at his Battle-Creek Sanitarium, a health retreat and boot camp for America’s wealthily unwell. Kellogg is generally considered to be the father of the Cornflake. In his later years this ostensibly qualified doctor became completely preoccupied with bowel health, often prescribing a violent purgation of bodily wastes via a series of arduous (or ridiculous) exercise regimes and of course, plenty of enemas.

The cornflake encrusted machines within The Dirt Factory look like the exhibits one might find in a Kellogg museum, preserved at the very moment they malfunctioned and still covered with excrement. More than just devices, these crude pieces of technology have become an analogue for the human body itself. Haig’s use of the familiar domestic technologies such as a toilet’s cistern, loosely resembles some kind of think-tank, one that must be kept clean by flushing unsanitary ideas into the toilet bowl. Ideally, these unwanted ideas alchemically converted into matter, would end up out to sea. Instead, this symbolic waste in the form of pre-soaked cornflakes, has erupted in a giant spume over the entire apparatus.

Like most children with a suburban middle-class heritage, my bathroom and toileting landscapes were antiseptic. I received a minor jolt of distaste and wonder when I first caught a glimpse of the interior of a cistern: the secret chamber towering above the bright, white porcelain of this flushing palace was FILTHY. At the time I was too young to identify this dirt as the residue of mineral deposits, I could only suppose that the toilet bowl must have backed up into the cistern: dirt that shouldn’t belong where it was.

Somehow seeing the inside of the cistern raised a curtain that separated the platonic realm of cleanly symbolic worlds, and the mysteries buried in the muck of matter. What crept into my subconscious that day was perhaps that filth and magic are inextricable.

This is certainly evident in within the body of work in The Dirt Factory . Haig’s installations are grottily magical. A multimedia cartoonist, Haig’s assemblage of domestic media renders more transparently his conceptual, and material research into cleanliness. Amidst the two-dimensional works in the room are an index of assorted bodily ailments ( Google Body Ailment Searches ) and a series of drawings and smeared statements, some of which are projected.

Whilst most of Ian Haig’s work is inherently funny, his skill as a cartoonist, like all good cartoonists extends beyond the punch-line.

In terms of mapping the ideal body, ancient Greek sculptors would infinitesimally enlarge a figure’s head (usually male) and diminish the size of the penis (definitely male) in order to emphasise the ideal human as a rational creature, beyond the reach of animal instincts. In a sense, this re-mapping of the ideal body is what John H Kellogg was attempting to achieve with the re-routing of sexual energies, channelling them towards exiting the body via the bowel.

Drawings such as John Wayne Worm Farm and the Human Worm Story are cartoon-kinesthetic maps of Haig’s own body, depicting his response as an artist to the parasitic invasion of a tapeworm. The subjective experience of illness can do strange things to the concept of one’s own body. People who have experienced powerful physical and mental illness have described their sensory encounter with the illness as if they were a “head on a pillow” or with phantom limbs that itch, or extend for miles into space. Haig’s 2D images show voracious and slavering intestinal worms, blind with mouths gaping, completely distending the gut of a cartoon body. Unlike the shit-coloured slurry painted on the walls and plastered over Haig’s nonsense machines, these drawings are fabricated by ‘cleaner’ materials and allude to the concept of invasion in less abject manner.

Possibly the most euphemistic and simultaneously the most pornographic work within the exhibition is the dvd/video installation Inner Cleansing Metamucil Event . It depicts the headshot of man (presumably the artist) mouth wide and attempting to quaff a constant flow of clear, running water. This slightly sadomasochistic submission to an inner hosing must certainly be shifting some toxins somewhere.

The difference between dirt and dirtiness is that dirt has its rightful place, dirtiness means that a line in the sand has been crossed. Pollution might indicate that the ability to distinguish between that which is in its rightful place and that which is not has been completely lost. Ian Haig’s The Dirt Factory an innovative and cliché-free take on body image and how ‘ideal’ bodies are decided culturally. When societies so ardently defend arbitrary borders, it is interesting to notice the absurdity of placing ‘cleanliness’ above cultural and physical health, and in turn how good or bad health may become an erroneous indicator of morality.