There are few places more historically resonant than the vast interior of Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of the Houses of Parliament, which since 1099 has witnessed the pomp and circumstance of British national life. Once a royal palace, it was also the setting for the trial and condemnation of Charles I. It has seen banquets and lyings-in-state. It has survived fire and blitz. Unlike many monuments, however, it retains its purpose as part of the fabric of national life. The murdered MP Jo Cox was commemorated here. With both major political parties in turmoil, it seems ready for plots and political drama.
So it is exquisite timing on the part of the creative agency Artangel to open its latest commission, The Ethics of Dust, in Westminster Hall, striking a chord of memory that makes its walls speak of the past. Devised by the New York-based Spanish artist-architect Jorge Otero-Pailos, the work consists of two 25-metre-long and six-metre-high sheets of translucent latex that hang like abstract tapestries from the hammerbeam roof. They are in fact casts of the Hall’s east wall, produced by a cleaning process that sprays latex onto the stained limestone, which then gradually absorbs the soot and dust of centuries. Once the latex has dried it is patched together like a vast animal – or human – skin.
Another way of looking at these quietly glowing sheets, which hang parallel to the east wall, is to consider them as gigantic lithographs. The stains they have lifted from the wall record the accidents of time, the marks of water, the changes of mortar, the traces left by statues set against the stones. When the sun shines through the high windows of the hall these skins turn to amber, and like amber, reveal the dust trapped within them.
Otero-Pailos’s title is a conscious appropriation from one of John Ruskin’s obscurer books, The Ethics of the Dust, which he subtitled ‘Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallisation’, and published in 1866. The homage in Westminster Hall, however, is more to Ruskin’s work as a pioneer of conservation than to his eccentric views on mineralogy, the nominal subject of The Ethics of the Dust. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture Ruskin railed against the rage for restoration that came with the Gothic Revival. It was, he wrote in a chapter called ‘The Lamp of Memory’, ‘a Lie from beginning to end’ that turned a living building into a corpse. Leaping into italics in defence of old buildings he argued: ‘We have no right whatever to touch them.’
This conservationist fundamentalism did not preclude maintenance and repair, but it must be done with respect to what he called ‘the nature of Gothic’, and not in the spirit of pastiche with which Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin raised the new Houses of Parliament following the fire of 1834 that destroyed almost everything except Westminster Hall. The new Palace of Westminster, Ruskin wrote, was ‘the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.’
Would Ruskin approve of Jorge Otero-Pailos’s work? Probably not. It is true that the cleaning method that he has transformed into a work of art is less destructive than the acid and iron files that were applied to the marbles of St Mark’s until Ruskin campaigned to stop their use. But for Ruskin, the glory of a building was to be found in its evidence of age. Its ancient walls were a ‘lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things.’ The real light and colour of architecture, its most precious element, was ‘that golden stain of time’.
And yet, as the politicians scurry through Westminster Hall on their ephemeral pursuits, the golden stain of time remains, suspended opposite the stones from which they have been lifted, and preserved in Otero-Pailos’s creation. Ruskin’s lamp of memory still burns.
The Ethics of Dust is open from 29 June–1 September. Entry is free but tickets must be booked in advance. For opening times and to book visit the Artangel website, or enquire at the the Houses of Parliament ticket office at Portcullis House, Bridge Street, SW1A 2lW.