Substance and Meaning: "Swept Away" and Book Culture

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During my last trip to New York City, I took an evening to indulge my interest in the intersection between physicality, functionality and aesthetics but going to the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) with a close friend.

Neither of us had been to the museum since it opened up its relatively new space at 2 Columbus Circle in 2008. But every Thursday night, MAD opens its doors until 9:00 pm and invites visitors to "pay what they wish." It was the perfect opportunity for us to explore.

We were duly impressed. MAD's featured exhibit that evening was called "Swept Away" and remains on view through August 12 2012. The exhibit follows in the museum's tradition of presenting international perspectives from emerging artists and designers using unusual media. In this particular case, the media were particularly ephemeral: dust, smoke, dirt, and sand.

My work for the 9/11 Memorial Museum project has strengthened my interest in dust as a component of art and artifacts, lending them physical gravity as evidence of a particular human event. The 9/11 Memorial's artist registry includes works from artists who incorporated dust from Ground Zero and lower Manhattan into their personal artistic response. Works by Jourdan Arpelle and Ejay Weiss provide notable examples.

In "Swept Away," artists' and designers' approaches to the media vary widely. Their works run the interpretive gamut as well, from subtly political statements about the destructive nature of war or the pervasiveness of environmental pollution to placid musings about the workings of nature. One of my favorite pieces used smoke as a kind of paint to produce images on the inside of glass bottles. Another preserved the ashes from a set of the artist's favorite books in unique vials of hand-blown glass.

When I read a feature in Slate magazine by Michael Agresta about the future of physical books, this particular piece came to mind again. The feature is called, "What Will Become of the Paper Book?" and posits that books will only be produced physically when their medium lends additional meaning to the book's text. Perhaps in the future, someone will manage to produce artwork from discarded pixels. Undoubtedly, the artistic and historical conversation about form and meaning will remain lively for years to come.