Have a breathe in.
Let the mingled molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon caress your nose hairs, slip under your epiglottis and tickle the cilia that line your trachea on the way in. Maybe follow one floating pair of atoms, as they drift further into the fluvial outreaches of your lungs, cross over the alveoli wall and hitch a ride on a red blood cell into your arteries. The other, unneeded molecules are ushered back the way they came.
Notions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are easily theorised, obsessed as we are with the workings of our own heads. Though the thin skin that covers our muscles and tendons is, if flattened out, up to two square metres worth of pulsing fabric; the combined routes of the bronchi of our lungs can have a surface area of up to seventy-five square metres. Which is to say that: an area of us around the size of a tennis court is constantly exposed to the air and elements, incessantly absorbing and exchanging materials. Life is simply, on one level, a thinly delineated set of molecules, filtering and sorting what’s needed from its surroundings in order to cultivate the conditions for existence. Humans are merely another permeable sac, punctuated at either end by muscular sphincters admitting and ejecting atoms.
The work of Amitai Romm is, broadly, a designation of systems. Rooms of sorted materials, sifted and organised into plastic and Styrofoam, matter redistributed to see what entity might emerge. Romm’s work has called on commercial distribution methods – shipping containers and packing materials that move parcels of food and goods; parabolas that echo satellites dispersing information signals – as well as sensory distribution methods, from spices and manufactured scents to drawing and art itself as a means of systemisation. In his work is the repeated question of how we have distinguished one thing from the other over time, and what is at stake when we do so. Whether using the stars or GoogleMaps to choose walk one direction rather than another, or choosing to ingest one plant or another, each choice is an incremental step in reconstituting what our body and our mind is made up of. Can a system ever be said to be fully independent, to have a life of its own?
At the centre of his installation at the Kunstmuseum Bonn is a circulation system, pumping at rhythmic intervals, where a liquid that approximates human sweat is drawn by osmosis through a filtration system. What emerges, through fragrant, cloth-bound appendages, is something approximating water. Ancient Sanskrit texts suggest purifying water by passing it through sand or coarse gravel; this system relies instead on a thin biotech membrane and household spices.
What leaches through those boundaries is, hopefully, the right molecules. A body is defined, as such, by what it is not. Any number of human habits – our diets, our disgusts and aversions – might be considered logical extensions of such a dynamic, though it would seem we’ve developed our own twists to that tale. The conception of cleanliness is a relatively recent take on what’s considered permissible to pass into contact with our body; in some contexts, dirt and rot are anathema, things to be rinsed away and disappeared. In others, they’re a replenishing mud bath and restorative probiotic. ‘If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt,’ the anthropologist Mary Douglas noted, ‘we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place.’[i] Immaculacy is only a matter of context.
Douglas, of course, didn’t provide a precise source for her supposed ‘old definition’; notes of hers point towards Philip Dormer Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, as the source of the idea, though no scholar has been able to find such a record. Henry John Temple, the third Viscount Palmerston, was found to have addressed the British Royal Agricultural Society in 1852 using a similar phrase: ‘I have heard it said that dirt is nothing but a thing in a wrong place.’[ii] It would seem hard to believe that theories of dirt originated with 18th and 19th century English gentry (but perhaps appropriate to their pursuit of notions of segregation and distinction); though it remains a matter of hearsay, an elusive whisper. The idea of dirt as a matter out of place is itself without a place. That might be part of its threat, as a notion that can shift, permeate and transform any supposed order; defined only as a thing that doesn’t belong it might determine what belonging is.
It recalls the way writer, poet and translator Anne Carson, in describing Jean-Paul Sartre’s examination of slime in Being and Nothingness, summed it up succinctly as a ‘crisis of contact’[iii]. The viscosity of slime, for Sartre, is repulsive because of the threat of permeability, that it might stick to you, and then drag everything else in with it and in turn invade your consciousness: ‘The horror of the slimy is the horrible fear that time might become slimy, that facticity might progress continually and insensibly and absorb the For-Itself which exists it.’[iv] Like the ever-growing alien mass of The Blob (1958), terrifying because it makes no distinction of boundaries, has no discernable taste for one matter or another: all is absorbed and turned to goo.
Placement and permeability, then, might to be bases around which we might approach Romm’s work. Materials, categorised into various containers, then placed into a system of select transaction, the specific crossing over, between a permeable boundary. It suggests the dynamic the formation of a body, a synthetic life form, that has yet to find its own skin or outside. We are witness to its first exchanges, its first sputtering breaths. The telling point might be when this body then wants to reach out and touch us. What right do humans, as just an organised library of sphincters, have to repel from any such touch? The crisis of contact is happening constantly, and the future lies in how each of us in turn embrace it.
Now, have a breathe out.
Originally published in the Dorothea Von Stetten Kunstpreis 2018 Catalogue.
[i] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London: Routledge, 1966, page 44.
[ii] Anon., ‘The Royal Agricultural Society’, The Times, 21169, 16 July 1852, p. 8.
[iii] Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, page 41.
[iv] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, London: Methuen, trans. Hazel E Barnes, 1957, page 611.