Dalia Baassiri

The Dust Keeper

Gregory Buchakjian

 

 Dalia Baassiri presents herself as a “woman performing regular household activities such as cleaning and dusting”. Mentioning this kind of occupation may be unusual in a curriculum, even more as an artist statement, especially when it occurs at this moment of history when women’s rights are, here and there, under threat. Dusting is a domestic action consisting of removing particles that fall everyday and everywhere on objects, furniture and surfaces. A dusty interior is either abandoned or badly maintained. In a short but famous text published as a definition of dust (Poussière), Georges Bataille explains that its removal, “with a large broom, or even a vacuum cleaner” can contribute, “at the same level than the positivist scientists, to hold off harmful ghosts whom cleanness and logic disgust”[1].

 

The relationship of Baassiri with these ghosts is yet to be clarified, however, the reader must be aware that her activity is not exactly the same as that of the cleaning ladies described by Bataille, nor the perfect housewife who might potentially satisfy a misogynic husband. Dusting is part of her artistic process, rather, the process by itself. Because of physical properties and its proximity to ashes, this grey shapeless material has a considerable presence in modern and contemporary culture.

 

Dust is less dirty than dirt. Dry, deprived of wetness and greasiness, dust is light, volatile, mobile. It settles and accumulates, but it is then easily airborne again. Dust travels. It is, for this reason, heterogeneous. (…)

Dust is form-less, it does not possess its own form, and it takes on that of its host, the nook in which it sits, the surface on which it is deposited. It is, in this sense, apparently passive. And yet, in this, it activates. (…)

Dust is also multi-form, in that its form changes and exchanges constantly. It changes its shape according to the form and the dynamics (air movements) of its environment. (…) It has no boundaries. It does not transgress; it invades and pervades[2].

 

In 1920, Man Ray produced the enigmatic Dust Breeding. The American photographer was invited to accompany Marcel Duchamp in his New York studio after this latter’s stay in Paris. Duchamp had voluntarily let his space in some kind of relinquishment, and, when the two entered, they had to move carefully in order not to be injured. Everywhere, the layer of dust became extremely thick. Man Ray, who had brought his camera, photographed Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The piece was unfinished, laying, with some parts covered by a cloth for protection. The whole was extremely mysterious[3]. While Duchamp had let dust accumulate on his large glass, Dalia Baassiri, on the contrary, removes dust from where she founds it. Strangely, the French transcription of dusting, “prendre la poussière” (literally, taking dust), seems so appropriate here. The paradox with “prendre la poussière” is that it implies that the cleaning lady would remove dust from where it accumulated to store it somewhere else. Dalia Baassiri stores dust effectively, in her notebook, for instance. It is not a usual notebook some would acquire in a proper stationary store, but an ensemble of dried cleaning wipes bind altogether. With each wipe, Baassiri collected dust from somewhere, thus creating an abstract composition.

 

In 2016, while she attended artist residences in the US, she gathered from people discarded objects meant to be thrown away. Then, she wrapped them with cleaning wipes, giving those debris from the consumption society ghostly appearances – it included a Donald Duck mask and a 2 US dollar bill. Interestingly, the wrapped objects, that could have been qualified as dusty but were not directly made of dust, rejoined the idea of the specters that was expressed in Bataille’s view, and was spectacularly staged in Anselm Kiefer’s monumental paintings, artist books, sculptures and installations. This way of viewing may establish a parallel between the practice of Baassiri and the canvases burnt by Hanibal Srouji by the end of the Lebanese war. In that perspective, dust and ashes function as memory machines.

 

It (dust) collects and incorporates particles of different origin, bearing traces of its movements and whereabouts in – rather than on - itself, by exchanging parts of itself with its environment(s). It gathers and it leaves itself behind, constantly engaged in a mutual exchange with its place. Even in apparent total stillness, dust moves with gravity, and grows[4].

 

While in New York, Baassiri collected dust from the art residence studio. Watching the various elements of the composition she produced, she still can identify, according to the colors, textures and densities, whose traces are where. She ultimately produced a sculpture entitled 7 Artists, where each of her colleagues’ residues were glued. Not really a housewife, Baassiri, who, in a previous life has been a graphic designer, could rather be qualified as an archivist.

 



[1] Georges Bataille, « Poussière », Documents 1, no 5 (octobre 1929), p 278.

[2]Teresa Stoppani, “Dust Revolutions. Dust, Informe, Architecture (Notes for a Reading of Dust in Bataille),” The Journal of Architecture 12, no. 4 (2007).

[3] David Campany, Dust. Histoires de Poussière D’après Man Ray et Marcel Duchamp (Paris: Le Bal / MACK Books, 2015), p. 8.

[4] Teresa Stoppani, op. cit.