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Creation story

Raw Gallery exhibit combines chemistry and mythology

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Our best-known creation stories start with an empty ocean. God moves on the surface of the water; stray molecules combine in a warm primordial sea; processes unfold that eventually give rise to life as we know it.

In Stones of Teeth, an exhibition by Chad Connery and Anca Matyiku at the Raw Gallery of Architecture and Design, these two world views are joined -- the mythic and the scientific -- in a slowly transforming installation fusing art, architecture, chemistry and 13th-century Icelandic folklore.

Descending into the primeval darkness of Raw's black-box basement space, what strikes you first is the smell, a blunt, sour vinegar aroma, then ambient noise -- an abstract bed of soft drones, reverberating clatters and distended chimes. At the base of the stairs, spotlights dimly illuminate what seems at first like a science-fiction soundstage or a scene from the ocean floor.

Curved, slightly tapering pillars like tubeworms, tusks or giant corals emerge from a glittering white ground. Each pillar stands below a bulbous, black stalactite structure dangling from the ceiling, which releases a slow trickle of clear liquid that collects in a shallow copper vessel set into the top of the column. The liquid pools and overflows, dribbling down the column sides, and powdery crowns of aquamarine and cobalt-blue crystals bloom along the rim of each bell-like bowl.

Despite the installation's otherworldly appearance, the materials here are elemental. The floor is salt, the columns a mixture of salt and lime, while the dripping liquid is a simple acetic acid solution (vinegar, essentially). The acid reacts with the salt and copper to create the delicate haloes of copper carbonate and copper chloride crystal, leaving a crust of slaked lime, which flows down the sides of the columns. Even the soundtrack, composed by Sarah Shin, consists entirely of amplified, distorted audio of water dripping into and rolling out of copper basins.

None of this would be out of place in a high school chemistry class, but Connery and Matyiku invite us to view these reactions through the unexpected lens of Scandinavian mythology.

In the Norse creation story, a trio of gods fashions the world from the corpse of a murdered giant, Ymir, who was born out of poisoned ice in Ginnungagap, the primordial ocean void. Ymir's blood became the rivers and lakes, his teeth and bones the rocks and mountainsides. (While I'll admit that the Creation story in Genesis has a certain elegance, 13th-century Icelanders knew how to keep it metal). The salt-lime pillars stand in for Ymir's teeth, and the strange black protuberances recall the udders of Auðumbla (Audumbla), the "primeval cow" who nourished him. (Did I forget to mention the primeval cow? There's a primeval cow.)

Even with the backstory in place, however, Stones of Teeth doesn't illustrate the myths so much as try to animate their underlying world view -- that creation is an embodied, interconnected, always unfolding and sometimes violent chain of transformation, one in which we all take part. The salt in the sea is the same salt in our blood and sweat, and the processes Connery and Matyiku set in motion continue without them -- the acid drips, crystals grow, and every so often a column cracks and topples into their sparkling bed of salt.

It's an odd and lovely work no matter which lens you choose to view it through. Stones of Teeth continues to take shape until June 27.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg artist, writer, and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2014 C14

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