The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column

If you missed Jorge’s installation at the V&A, or would like to see more of his work, a new commission for ‘ The Ethics of Dust ‘ is currently on display in Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster, London.


Sarah Healey-Dilkes, Senior Sculpture Conservator

Jorge Otero-Pailos, Artist, Architect, Preservationist

SHD: Your artwork, ‘The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column’, seems to rub up against issues current in the conservation of installation art being explored by INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art). It calls for a shift in the role of conservator.

JOP: My work is very much a part of this recent shift in conservation towards a practice that acknowledges and even expresses the creativity inherent in our work (Figure 1). This new direction has a lot to do with conservators having to respond to the innovations that installations brought to art. I think the most dramatic innovation was the shift in attitude towards material decay. Installation art was a radical departure from the artistic tradition of selecting materials fit for art on the basis of their durability. All of a sudden, artists were working with materials that had relatively short lifespans, like VHS tapes or piles of candy. Some of these materials couldn’t even hold up for the length of a normal museum show so conservators were thrust into having to conserve artworks, sometimes even before they were exhibited for the first time.


Art installation made of conservation latex that has been used to ‘clean’ the hollow inside of the cast of Trajan’s Column.

Figure 1: Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column” (2015). Commissioned by the V&A Museum. The installation is made of conservation latex that has been used to ‘clean’ the hollow inside of the cast of Trajan’s Column, the largest object in the V&A. It shows the dust and dirt accumulated over decades in the usually unseen interior of the column, hanging in the space next to the cast. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

SHD: What influence has working with an object in a museum had on your artwork?

JOP: This is my first museum show. Previous ‘Ethics of Dust’ works were exhibited in biennials like Venice and Manifesta. The museum context gave this work a particular inflection. I was really gripped by the internal brick chimney that supports the plaster casts of Trajan’s Column. It is so extraordinary that such an example of common industrial architecture is inside the Museum. It made me think of all the other thousands of chimneys built in Victorian Britain. What did they support? One could say Victorian culture, understood in the broadest sense. We wouldn’t have had Victorian British culture without all those chimneys and without all the pollution they pumped into the air. The V&A chimney is, for me, a key to understanding the Museum and the culture from which it sprung. It is also a key to understanding the emergence of conservation in the nineteenth century as a form of damage control against environmental degradation.

Pollution is such an intrinsic aspect of the purpose of a chimney. If Trajan’s Column, or Trajan’s Chimney rather, was outside a historic Manchester factory, it would make no sense to clean it but the fact that it is inside a museum makes it conceptually possible to do so. The conservator’s careful cleaning is one of the ways museums respond to, express and even sometimes construct the value of their objects. So to clean Trajan’s invisible chimney was an attempt to bring it, along with its dust, into view as a legitimate cultural object.

SHD: To me, ‘The Ethics of Dust’ neatly fixes and manifests two dynamic processes, simultaneously making them visible: the constructive process of the original Victorian installation of the casts of Trajan’s Column and the process of cleaning.

JOP:  From a merely technical point of view, ‘The Ethics of Dust’ is a cleaning job. But as Brandi pointed out, in conservation nothing is ‘merely’ technical. A museum conservator cleans in order to know. In other words, for a conservator cleaning is also a hermeneutic act, a way of interpreting the material conditions of art objects in order to derive knowledge from them. Where I find Brandi wanting is that he limited the knowledge conservators should pursue to things like the artist’s original intent and the object’s aesthetic integrity, restricting the set of legitimate questions dramatically to those that traditional art historians were interested in. Why should conservators continue to restrict themselves to these questions when even art historians have moved on? ‘The Ethics of Dust’ is an attempt to expand the field of inquiry. One of the things I’m interested is the conceptual threshold we establish between what is intrinsic and extrinsic to the object. The act of cleaning an object, the decision to remove dust encrustations for example, follows a decision that deems that dust extrinsic. This is ultimately a decision about what belongs in the museum and what doesn’t, about what is part of culture and what isn’t.

SHD: Conservators witness the settling of pollutants onto porous surfaces, penetrating and often remodeling the surface. The pollution is seen as active and deleterious. Do you suggest a more archaeological approach to the pollutants?

JOP: I’m interested in how conservators draw the line, how we make choices. I’m interested in the fine grain of decisions. Since the origins of conservation we have been throwing away the pollution accumulated on objects as if it had no significance at all. Now we realize that pollution is enormously important, as the source of climate change, as the measure of the Anthropocene, as our civilization’s longest lasting product. What if we were to think of pollution as intrinsic to cultural objects? It behoves us to study it, and not just its chemical but also its cultural makeup. ‘The Ethics of Dust’ is an attempt to expand the hermeneutic techniques familiar to conservators to an unfamiliar material.

Paradoxically, one can only appreciate the object quality of pollution by detaching it from the soiled object. This physical separation for me expands the object. An art object does not need to be physically continuous but can be made up of many detached but related physical entities. So even when I separate the pollution from Trajan’s Column, it remains part of the cultural object. It was important to exhibit the dust cast next to, and visually related to, the source object in order to express this conceptual relationship (Figure 2). The choice conservators make of where to put the pollution we clean is very important.

Art installation made of conservation latex that has been used to ‘clean’ the hollow inside of the cast of Trajan’s Column.

Figure 2. Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column” (2015).
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

SHD: Understanding the plaster cast of Trajan’s Column as an expanded cultural object with multiple identities seems to be dependent on what is made visible in the gallery space.

JOP: Conservators can bring objects (the chimney, the pollution) into and out of the cultural realm, just like filmmakers can visually frame things in and out of the narrative. Generally speaking, traditional artists practice creativity as projective intention, whereas conservators exercise it as responsive supplementation.

SHD: The collaborative aspect of your work and being very much ‘hands-on’ with the team and the process appears very necessary and vital to your work.

JOP: People learn best in groups. That’s why we have schools, universities, and museums. I see every project as a learning opportunity, and I treasure the insights of those with whom I have a chance to collaborate. So much of what we learn happens on the scaffolding as we collectively ponder what we are touching and looking at, as we face problems and try to resolve them together. Those conversations really shape the direction of the process and the outcome. If I were to delegate the work, I wouldn’t learn as much from it, so it would be less interesting to me.


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