Jorge Otero-Pailos has always been obsessed with old buildings. He watches them closely. Some years ago, he noticed that many monuments underwent regular cleanings for no reason other than to make them look pretty. “I began to wonder why the public wants monuments to look clean?” he said. “What is it about pollution that seems so offensive that we cannot tolerate it on monuments?”

For him, the layers of dust and debris covering the buildings represent the history of civilization, almost like the wrinkles on an aging face that give it depth and character and signify a past. “We don’t know how to have a civilization without making pollution,” he said. “That’s why I think it is important for us to find a place for pollution within our culture. We won’t get there if we keep hiding it from view, which is all that cleaning buildings does.”

It bothered him that society kept trying to erase it. Otero-Pailos, professor and director of historic preservation at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture, planning and preservation, saw the dust as art.

The Ethics of Dust: Doge’s Palace (2009), as exhibited in the Corderie of the 53rd Venice Art Biennale. Collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Foundation T-BA21. Source: Jorge Otero-Pailos

“The point of preserving pollution, or preserving anything for that matter, is to change how we see the world,” he said. “One way to do that is to find a new use for a useless thing. By definition, dust pollution is useless. That’s why we dump it in the air and the oceans. I put it to a new use by making art out of it. In the process, I want to change how people perceive pollution.”

To turn the dust of ages past into art, he first paints liquid conservation latex onto the walls of monuments. As the latex dries, the evaporation creates a suction effect on the surface of the walls that pulls the pollution off and transfers it to the latex. Then he peels the dry latex off the wall — with the pollution — and fashions the dry latex into a piece.

“The value of preserving pollution is, first of all, to allow us to think of airborne pollution as an object, even as an art object, which is easier said than done,” he said. “Few people think of pollution as an object. They think of it as shapeless and uncontrollable as the wind. But by making it art, I turn it into an object, one that invites viewers to rethink their relationship to the environment, and perhaps to each other.”

The Ethics of Dust: Alumix, Bolzano (2008). Collection of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bolzano, Italy. Source: Patrick Ciccone

The result over the last decade: seven public art installations created from dust he has peeled from the walls of historic monuments.

His works — collectively known as “The Ethics of Dust” — are shown individually all over the world, in galleries and museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where “The Ethics of Dust: Old US Mint San Francisco currently is on view; The Museum of London; The Ulster Museum in Belfast; The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester; the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, The People’s Palace, both in Glasgow; The Museums Sheffield; the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum; and La Galerie Louis Vuitton Museum in Paris also own pieces from the series as part of their permanent collections.

The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column (2015). Commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Source: Peter Kelleher / V&A Museum

“[Anthropologist and cultural theorist] Mary Douglas defined pollution as matter out of place, or more precisely matter for which we collectively refuse to make a place within our culture for fear that it might damage our cultural norms and cohesion — in other words, pollution is a cultural taboo,” he said. “I find it fascinating that in our day and age, when practically every taboo has been broken, pollution remains one of those things we all would rather not see or talk about. Even though it is everywhere around us — in the very air we breathe — we can’t tolerate being confronted with it, and much less on the walls of monuments that symbolize the achievements of our civilization.”

If his artwork is an attempt to make pollution tangible, it’s also a way to embody climate change, he said.

“One of the defining characteristics of climate change is the man-made nature of the atmosphere,” he said. “But the atmosphere is an impossible object to see. Even from outer space you can only see half of it. ‘The Ethics of Dust’ is a way to visualize the atmosphere as a cultural object. At first, my works might seem like peelings of monuments. But when you stop to wonder where that dust came from, you realize that it is a deposition from the man-made atmosphere.”

The Ethics of Dust: Maison de Famille Louis Vuitton (2015). Panel 7 of the heptaptych. Louis Vuitton Collection. Source: Grégoire Vieille / Louis Vuitton

Taken together, the collection “can be thought of as imprints of the atmosphere taken in different points of the planet,” he said. “They are pieces of the polluted atmosphere, which is the major monument of climate change, marking the dawn of the Anthropocene,” referring to the geologic age when human activities began to have an impact on the environment, including climate.

“The Anthropocene is nothing more than noting the fact that stones being produced today have a different chemical makeup, a different dust content, than those before humans came along and polluted the atmosphere,” he added. “The same dust that is forming the new crust of the Earth is in ‘The Ethics of Dust.’”

Moreover, it’s the inevitable byproduct of an advancing civilization. “That’s why I think it is important for us to find a place for pollution within our culture,” he said. “It’s impossible to make pollution magically disappear. All we do is push it around so it is far from view, to dumps, to the bottom of rivers and oceans, to the top of the atmosphere.”

Jorge Otero-Pailos cleaning the wall of the Alumix factory in 2008. Source: Patrick Ciccone

“While most of us know that airborne pollution exists, it is very hard to conceive of it as real,” he said. “It’s hard to see when you look at the sky, so we don’t seem to mind it so much there. But when it is patently obvious as stains on buildings we can’t stand to look at it, and we wipe it off and flush it into rivers. This, to me, reveals something fundamental about our society: That we cannot tolerate things we cannot control. The fact that we tolerate pollution when it is preserved shows that preservation operates as a way of controlling, of expressing something shapeless, a way of making something tolerable.”

He believes people clean monuments solely for psychological and aesthetic reasons. “It is really our minds that cannot tolerate the sight of it,” he said. “The pollution does not pose a threat to our bodies unless you get up on a scaffolding and lick the building, which I’ve never seen anyone do. The black dust encrusted on walls is also not damaging the buildings, save in some rare situations.”

The Ethics of Dust at Westminster Hall (2016). An Artangel commission. Source: Marcus J Leith

Over the years, he has found the process of crafting these works both emotionally cathartic as well as educational.

“I learn something new about pollution with every artwork,” he said. “When I cleaned the site of the ancient Roman silver mines in Carthago Nova — now Spain — I learned that pollution from that mining operation can be found in Greenland. This means that the Romans already polluted the atmosphere, and that pollution lasts longer than any monument.

“At the height of the Roman Empire, they were 70 million people who lived an average of 18 years. Now we are 7.6 billion and the average life expectancy is 68,” he added. “Our output of pollution is enormous by comparison, and it will last thousands of years. So I have come to see pollution as the greatest monument of our civilization.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.