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Ask the Dust: An Interview with Jorge Otero-Pailos

A section of the 50 metre latex cast of Westminster Hall’s east wall is tested in a warehouse in Northampton ahead of being installed at Westminster Hall this June. (Photo: Nick Chapman)

By GREGORY DE LA HABA, Aug. 2016

Madrid-born Jorge Otero-Pailos is a bit of an anomaly in the art world. Recently named Columbia University’s Director of Architectural Preservation, Jorge is an architect and architectural preservationist as well as a dedicated visual artist. Known and respected by artists and curators around the globe, Jorge has been commissioned to create installations for some of the art world’s most prestigious exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and Manifesta.

This past June his six-year collaboration with the UK-based organization Artangel and the Houses of Parliament’s perseveration team was unveiled in Westminster Hall. “The Ethics of Dust: Westminster Hall,” Jorge’s 50-meter long translucent latex cast of the hall’s internal east wall contains over 100 years’ of particles of dust, soot and dirt and draws attention to important global issues including environment and pollution’s effect on our cultural heritage — past and present.

WM: You are an architect and architectural preservationist by training, when did you realize that you are also an artist?

JOP: In a way it was stronger than me. The whole education system is set up to slowly wean children from their artistic drive. I tried very hard to avoid becoming an artist and went as far as is possible in education, completing a PhD. Then something very curious happened, I realized that at the highest levels there are no boundaries between disciplines. To advance knowledge is to make new connections. This freed me to make work that didn’t conform to the disciplines I was trained in, and that is recognizable as art.

WM: How did you determine to develop this aspect of your work?

JOP: My work examines environmental pollution. At first, I was interested in the very narrow problem of how it destroys monuments — our civilizations’ past, but then I became interested in the threat that it poses to our civilizational future. Pollution is a phenomena that we know surprisingly little about, and we need to make connections between disciplines to gain a better grasp of it. Scientists and environmental experts have yet to determine pollution’s effects on animal and plant life and whether these effects will be irreversible. Art and science are closely linked — they employ different methods for understanding reality. This realization made me determined to work artistically to document and interpret the past and future of pollution.

Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix factory, Bolzano, Italy, in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Ciccone)

WM: How did you come up with the concept for your series “The Ethics of Dust?”

JOP: I was, and continue to be, influenced by the 19th Century artist, preservationist and art critic, John Ruskin. His writings examined everything from architecture and literature to geology and political economy and his work was so thoughtful and extensive that he is regarded as a forefather of modern art and modern preservation. He helped free art from the rules of classicism and preservation from the recreation of the past. I’m interested in exposing our human tendency to see what we wish rather than what is there. Monuments around the world are covered in the dust and grime caused by pollution. “The Ethics of Dust” reveals both products of our civilization — the monument and the pollution. If the purpose of monuments is to serve as documents of our common history, then we loose a great deal of that history by flushing pollution down the drain.

"The Ethics of Dust" at Westminster Hall, by Jorge Otero-Pailos, 2016. An Artangel commission. (Photo by Marcus J Leith)

WM: How did this commission come about with Artangel?

JOP: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, introduced me to Michael Morris, Artangel’s co-director, six years ago. Michael had seen my dust cast of the Doge’s Palace at the Venice Biennale, and understood the relationship of that building to London’s Westminster Hall. Ruskin was obsessed with these two Gothic structures, both of which were seats of government to vast naval empires. In fact, both played key roles in the long historical arc that went from absolute monarchy to modern parliamentary democracy.

WM: Can you describe the process involved in creating this work?

JOP: After working with the many stakeholders in Parliament to comply with the many rules and regulations, we collaborated closely with the Curator of Works of Art and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate’s team working on the ongoing restoration of Westminster Hall. Technically, the cleaning process began by brushing liquid conservation latex on the wall. The wet latex softened and lifted the pollution from the stone. As the latex dried it absorbed the pollution, leaving the dust particles cast into the latex.

Technicians removing the latex in Westminster Hall, 2015. (Photo courtesy DBR Limited)

WM: You have done commissions and created works for the Venice Biennale (Doge’s Palace), The Old San Francisco Mint, and the V&A to name a few…all of which have been large-scale installations. How are these works preserved for the future?

JOP: Artworks rarely last unless there are people interested enough in them to take care of them. In that sense "The Ethics of Dust" is no exception. The only way they will last in their artistic form is if they sustain people’s interest enough to warrant their ongoing preservation over generations. The difference between "The Ethics of Dust" and other artworks is that it was born out of caring for and preserving another object. In this sense preservation is at the origin of the artwork, not something that comes after the artwork.

WM: Other artists who create on the scale that you do often create collages, drawings, etc. as a way to both fund and give continued ‘life’ to these projects (think Christo & Jean-Claude)  do you create studies, collages or drawings when approaching a project? If so  are these studies ever revealed?

JOP: I do create working drawings and preparatory collages. The installations being ephemeral, they are documents of the creative process and contain important details about the artworks. I am working on some editions to make them more broadly available.

"The Ethics of Dust" at Westminster Hall, by Jorge Otero-Pailos, 2016. An Artangel commission. (Photo by Marcus J Leith)

WM: How do you see this work/series evolving?

JOP: "The Ethics of Dust" continues to be — on a basic level — a project about preserving and cleaning monuments. However, as I continue working on it, I discover new levels of information worth researching. As an ongoing series it has evolved into a historical atlas of airborne pollution. Today, to say airborne pollution is to say the atmosphere, for there is no clean air anymore. So the series is also evolving into a way of visualizing the atmosphere historically.

WM: I take it you don't suffer from allergies?

JOP: Luckily, I don't.

WM: Thank you Jorge, much continued success. 

JOP: Thank you. WM

Jorge Otero-Pailos's "The Ethics of Dust," commissioned by Artangel is at Westminster Hall, House of Parliament, London, until September 1.

Gregory de la Haba

Gregory de la Haba is an artist and writer from New York City.

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