Coales' Notes: Dust to dust: Problems with a new art installation at the Wick Gallery give Gordon Coales food for thought

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: I spent a pleasant morning in the Wick Gallery, over- seeing an installation of work by Louise Colly (one of our more easy- to-work-with artists). The installation ('Dust') consists of an enormous quantity of domestic dust - not an easy thing to come by in quantity, but kindly donated, after a prolonged hunt on my part, by a vacuum cleaner company - just dust, filling almost the entire floorspace to a depth of six inches.

I had my doubts about this piece. While I was looking at it, all completed at last, a very curious sensation came over me. I found I actually quite liked it. The dust has a strangely luminous and immaterial quality. We had a critic present, and I remarked to him that, without wishing at all to influence his judgement, it was rather an impressive thing. He said: 'Mm. The work is finally, I think, about death.' And yet, even so, I find I do like it. Well, I suppose it had to happen some time.

WEDNESDAY: Today, Rory arrived with rumours of a controversy brewing up, concerning the rice- based installation at the Tate Gallery - people raising objections to the use of several tons of a basic foodstuff in a work of art.

I said, whether one liked it or not, frankly I was amazed at the British public's inexhaustible capacity to be outraged by these things. You would honestly think, at this stage in the game, they might have simply calmed down a bit.

He agreed: 'I mean rice, for God's sake. It's not as if it was sausages, or chips, or baked beans, or something that people would really feel strongly about.'

I said, at least nobody will be able to complain that our dust installation is a misuse of a valuable human resource. He replied: 'Yeah, it's a bit bland, isn't it. Too late now, anyway.' Basically, insensitive.

(I note that the Tate's rice has been supplied by the Rice Bureau. I think anyone seeking to judge the relative merits of the two pieces might bear this point in mind: there is no Dust Bureau.)

I had to go out in the afternoon to try to persuade some of our seceding artists to stay on board. A quiet and understanding word generally seems to do the trick.

THURSDAY: I think Rory has now genuinely overstepped the mark. He was not in the office today. At around lunchtime I got a call from someone in the media, asking for a number for Ms Colly. Twenty minutes later the artist herself rang up.

She said: 'Look, Gordon, I have something very serious to say to you. I have just been informed that alterations are being made to my work without consultation.' I asked, alterations of what nature? She went on: 'I am informed that an essential component of the work - that is, the dust - has been changed. I am informed it is now not dust, but instead - what is it called? - alphabetti spaghetti.' I told her to leave it with me.

I immediately took a cab to the Wick Gallery. A television crew was already in attendance. I peered through the gallery window. On the floor there was a lake of spaghetti segments in tomato sauce, contained in some kind of giant paddling pool. On the pavement they were filming interviews. A spokesman for a charity was being asked: 'Two hundred gallons, just lying there - from the point of view of Hunger in Britain, is this art?'

The spokesman: 'Well, I don't know whether or not to call it art, but this is definitely a frivolous use of alphabetti spaghetti. We're talking about the deliberate waste of a quantity of food sufficient to feed a family of four, three times a day, for approximately nine months continuously - though of course, in nutritional terms, we could not recommend this, of itself, as a balanced diet.' The director: 'Lovely.' Then the same critic we had on Tuesday came on. He: 'Many people may have an initial difficulty in seeing this as more than what it is, but the work is finally, I think, about birth. We're presented with a kind of, if you like, gory, amniotic soup of language in its elemental and inchoate form.' The director: 'Terrific. OK, a few vox pops now.'

I went into the gallery. I found Rory in there, smirking disagreeably. He said: 'Trust me, Gordon. Publicity.' I asked, where was the dust? What had he done with the dust? He replied: 'Gordon. Now stay calm. The dust is in a dustbin.'

I stormed out of the gallery, straight into the TV people. The director said to me: 'So, I sense that you're pretty angry about this 'work of art', are you sir?' I said, yes I was angry, and I wanted to put it on record that this work was originally made of dust - dust which I personally had spent many weeks trying to collect - and now it had all been simply thrown into the dustbin. I could only describe this as a phenomenal waste of dust.

He held up an arm. He said: 'And cut there, I think. Thanks for your time, mate.' He turned to an assistant: 'Sorry about that. Right, can we try and find someone a bit more ordinary-member-of-the-general-public-ish?'

I'm afraid this is going to be another artist we have lost. But the disturbing thing is, while I was briefly in the gallery with the spaghetti, I couldn't help but find it a strangely powerful piece of work. I think my judgement may be going entirely.