Salt Seller: Elvira Finnigan

There is a saying that we have inherited from medieval England about being either “above or below the salt.” The former was preferable since it meant that you sat with the Lord, his family and honoured guests at high table. (Salt is absolutely necessary to human survival; every cell in our body is bathed in a salt solution). And because you were able to have salt with your meal, things tasted better. Both prestige and palate were satisfied. For Winnipeg artist, Elvira Finnigan, everyone who attended her performance, Festin et Conséquences (Feast and Aftermath) at the Centre culturel franco-manitobain, was “above the salt.”

Finnigan organized a dinner attended by the Collectif Post-néo-rielistes, a group of Franco-Manitoban poets, writers and playwrights, who ate, drank and read poetry on the evening of December 12, 2012. Instead of doing the dishes in a conventional way after the meal, she poured salt brine over the table and its contents, letting it crystallize over a two-month period. The effect was strangely beautiful; the celebratory turned to the entropic. Everything is altered; patterns of salt creep along the tablecloth like irregular lace or close-ups of snowflakes; the brown crystals that overflow the rim of a coffee cup resemble a bouquet of brown sugar; a plate cradles a dusting of crystals that looks like ash. Finnigan is aware of the memorial quality of the remnant objects. “Things get preserved,” she says, “but in the end it’s kind of solidified, like objects in an underwater shipwreck, or images from Pompeii.”

Elvira Finnigan, “Feast and Aftermath,” installation view, La Gallery, Centre cultural franco-manitobain, Winnipeg, 2012-13. All photographs: William Eakin

Finnigan started her experiments with salt in the shadow of 9/11. She was living in Pittsburgh when the third plane crashed only 30 miles outside the city and in the months after the attack she remembers seeing the repeated broadcasts of the collapsing towers. “It was startling because the images of the dust in newspapers and on TV were quite beautiful and it was horrifying to realize that the beauty I was seeing was created through destruction.” Like so many artists, she felt the need to respond to an event that changed the world. Her solution came through recognizing the healing that is intrinsic to cooking and preserving, and the idea of hospitality.

Feast and Aftermath is an event that fits tidily inside the category of relational aesthetics; it is a meal that becomes art in being experienced, and then becomes art again in being commemorated in crystalline form. The effect of the salt brine is irresistible. “It has its own patterns as it absorbs liquids, it seeps and carries on and forms icicles. The salt icicles that were dripping off the edge of the tablecloth were absolutely gorgeous.” But that beauty is short-lived. To preserve the preserving, Finnigan had the artist William Eakin photograph the event; his images document the fragile purchase that human rituals claim on the inescapability of time. Finally, it is the poignancy of Feast and Aftermath that is absolute and crystal clear.