The beginning of a new year is inevitably a time for reflection, even if those reflections are more or less the same as last time. It's a time for "new beginnings" and renewed resolve -- the ads for reduced-rate gym memberships are insistent on this point.
You're reminded that "time flies" and that you're getting older (a bit paunchier or just more tired, but maybe a bit smarter or kinder, too). If you take that line of thought to its logical conclusion, you'll be reminded that you and everyone you care about is eventually going to die.
Happy New Year! I seem to have misplaced my party horn.
Feast and Aftermath, currently on view at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain, is only the most recent iteration of Elvira Finnigan's Saltwatch project, a series of artistic "experiments" begun more than a decade ago, but its timing over the holidays lends the work an added poignancy, highlighting its elegant treatment of passing time and all its conflicting connotations.
Finnigan's process is simple and always more or less unchanged: shallow dishes, table settings, and other objects are filled or bathed with a concentrated brine that's left to evaporate over time, leaving a glittering encrustation of tiny salt crystals where it recedes.
The night before the exhibition's public opening, the "Collectif Post-néo-rieliste," an informal group of Franco-Manitoban authors, translators and the like, threw a dinner party in the gallery. The "remains" of the meal, left strewn across the banquet table -- dirty plates, empty wine glasses, discarded lobster shells, and uneaten cream puffs alongside books and manuscripts brought by the guests -- got Finnigan's brining treatment, and from that point on time and the elements were left to do their work.
We may not have been invited to the feast, but we are privy to the aftermath, which will continue to unfold until the show closes early next month.
Several weeks in, plates and glasses overflow with crystalline "foam" that spills out onto the tabletop and empty chairs. Book pages buckle, and scraps of cheese and stray grapes take on sickly hues of brown, beige and grey. Photographs and time-lapse animations of earlier Saltwatch projects occupy the rest of the gallery, giving context to the main installation.
Salt preserves, whether it's the natron used by the Ancient Egyptians to mummify their dead or the salts and brines still used to preserve and pickle food today.
Salt also destroys, whether in "salting the earth," a (mostly symbolic) curse laid on conquered cities in the ancient Near East or the salt air that breaks down the wood of coastal homes from the inside out. Feast and Aftermath invokes all of these associations -- food and funerals, protection and destruction, bounty and barrenness.
Like the 16th- and 17th-century painters who sneaked skulls and rotting fruit into their opulently appointed still lifes to remind wealthy patrons of their own mortality, Finnigan reminds us that we're subject to inexorable forces -- time, chemical reactions -- even if their action is too slow to see. If you can't stop them (and you can't), you might as well take in some of their unpredictable, ambivalent beauty while they do their thing.
In the midst of life we are in death. A votre santé!
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.
Feast and Aftermath
By Elvira Finnigan
Centre culturel franco-manitobain
To Feb. 2