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A Handful of Dust at the Pratt Photography Gallery

Art Scene

A Handful of Dust at the Pratt Photography Gallery

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

So goes the infamous Biblical text, one of several origin stories that speculate on the relationship of human beings to Mother Nature. In contrast, A Handful of Dust takes its point of departure from an early 20th century collaboration between photographer Man Ray and artist Marcel Duchamp.

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Pratt Institute’s Photography Gallery – Photo by Anders Jones

The exhibition, currently on display at the Pratt Institute’s Photography Gallery, was previously on view at Le Bal in Paris, and will next travel to Whitechapel Gallery in London next and Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Curated by David Campany, the project is centered on a photograph taken by Man Ray of a piece of glass, created by Duchamp, covered with dust.

The photograph, embraced by a small avant-garde journal in 1922, has been an object of fascination for publications and artists for nearly a century. The image’s first title was “View from an Aeroplane.” It was later called, “Dust Breeding.” The work, simultaneously abstract and realist in character, is an intriguing stimulus to the work on view in A Handful of Dust.

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Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp, Élevage de poussière, (Dust Breeding), 1920 – Photo by Anders Jones

While walking through the exhibition, the implications of dust, or its absence in our lives, take on new meaning. Tornadoes, domestic servitude, movies like Mad Max, and desert motorsport races come to mind.

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From a private collection of press photographs 1935-1937, photographer unknown – Photo by Anders Jones

However, when viewers are confronted with the aftermath of bombing and destruction in images that depict the devastation of Hiroshima, the implosion of a building in Kuwait, or the rubble of a post 9/11 streetscape, something oddly human yet inhumane, befuddles the brain.

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Far wall – Sophie Ristelhueber, Because of Dust Breeding, 1991-2007 (image of Kuwait just after the Gulf war) – Photo by Anders Jones

Some of the older works in the exhibition reflect a relationship to dust beyond war and man-made conflict. Plaster Cast of a Victim of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 18 3, by Giorgio Sommer, shot in 1872, documents a body in a cast as a result of a volcanic eruption just east of Naples, Italy. The 1936 image, Child’s Grave, by Walker Evans, depicts a swath of dirt with a raised curved rectangular portion of the ground shown horizontally across the frame. A small square tombstone rests at the end, perhaps suggesting the simplicity of the burial.

Additional images by Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, and several unknown photographers among others populate the exhibition. Display cases housing numerous journals that have featured the original “Dust Breeding” image in the context of other works are also on view.

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Installation view by Anders Jones

Although it is hard to know what the exact allure of the Man Ray/Duchamp creation is, the simple yet powerful nature of dust is evident in A Handful of Dust. Viewers who are extra curious can take a short trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the actual piece of glass from which Man Ray created his iconic image – Duchamp’s work, Large Glass.

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