• Nina Hanz

The Definition of Dirt

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

She is given merely a few short paragraphs, words I skim before entering the exhibition at Camden Arts Centre until I read a little word that catches my attention. She is Vivian Suter and the exhibition is called ‘Tintin’s Sofa’. The word I am interested in is dirt, a word amongst other used in a list stuck to the wall.

I know of two different definitions for dirt. The first being a noun referring to a substance of soil: soot, dust, mud, the filth under your fingernails. All the things that spoil, a word so close to soil. And more generally all shit artist usually keep far away from their precious paintings. At best, dirt can be an excrement, an experiment, the soil sample. Dirt. The second definition that comes to mind is also a noun, but more metaphorical: dirt, as in confidential information, a scandal, the dirty little details we all keep secret. The stuff we shove under sofas and store deep down in underwear drawers. At worst, dirt is a nasty rumours.

Back in 2005, the wall tell me, dirt nearly destroyed Suter's tropical paintings. There was some kind of storm the kind of rainstorm that breaks through windows until the weather is inside the buildings and everything becomes soil to drench.

The canvases, frameless, hang like old beach towels in floral colours. There are geometrical shapes and branches, sunny spirals and abstract animals. These paintings are like dirt because they two are formless, pliable, experimental. A few of the canvases fray, hanging like vines. Some even have splashes, strokes, splatters of dirt, watered down into a paste, mud. And like dirt, the works are not just brown but clay-coloured, bright and rich, vivid. Nourishing in feeling. In tight rows or isolated, painting layer like soil, rock beds and dirt. Lights cast different shadows depending on where I stand, like the earth ever-changing.

As I move, the backsides of the paintings can be seen. layers, folded and merging into something all-sharing. As if they were exposing their secrets, their material information. My eye traces a dirty stain as it waterfalls across the floor. Suter's painting, dishing out their dirt shamelessly. In the white open spaces, they are indiscrete, unembarrassed of their imperfections. These paintings aren’t just dirty or schmutzig, they are dirt. And this what makes them so impressive, so accurate to the environment that inspired Suter’s recent works.

On the floor and the walls, they obstruct my way. They become a jungle I must navigate, much like Vivian Suter’s adopted home of Guatemala, a placed filled with her dogs prints and animal tracks, mysterious plant life and the very marks the land makes for itself. But the exhibition does not feel too exotic, rather a sample to study and it makes me want to change the definition of dirt, to make it looser. I want to make dirt the kind of art that is unsettled, but therefore alive, thriving. I want to define dirt as smudges of paint drops on canvases that at first I didn’t notice. I want dirt to be the freshness when you bring your environment into art. When you bring your reality into it.