Finnigan’s Wake

An artist uses brine to preserve her decaying Reception

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Elvira Finnigan: Reception
Dunlop Gallery: Sherwood Branch
Until March 22

Receptions are common features at most art openings. They’re usually not elaborate — the host gallery provides a plate or two of goodies for guests to nibble on, along with some liquid refreshment while they chat about the art or whatever.

Winnipeg artist Elvira Finnigan takes that practice to a whole new level with Reception. The title is an obvious clue, and it’s backed up by the work which consists almost entirely of the remnants of the reception that was held when the show opened on Jan. 14 — with one important add-on.

The reception was styled as a tea party, with a long table covered in a white tablecloth. And as the gathering wound down, Finnigan doused the table with a salt brine solution.

By the time I dropped by on Jan. 28, the brine had begun to crystallize on the cups, saucers, serving trays, tea/coffee pots and leftover food and drink which included finger sandwiches, dainties, mints, pearl onions, pickles and fruit punch.

Brine & Bees

When I was reading the advance publicity for Reception, which was curated for the Dunlop by Blair Fornwald, I was reminded of another Winnipeg artist: Aganetha Dyck.

Long-time Regina art lovers might remember a show Dyck had at the MacKenzie Gallery 12 or so years ago. In fact, if you saw it I’m sure you would remember it because it involved Dyck placing a wedding dress inside an active bee colony. The bees had access to the outdoors through a specially installed pipe, and during the exhibition they built honeycomb onto the dress.

Through decisions Dyck and Finnigan make in setting up their installations, they exert a degree of control over the final product. But in both instances a degree of collaboration is also involved.

In Dyck’s case, it’s an organic process driven by the bees and their hive behaviour. Finnigan’s process is driven by geo-chemistry, as the brine solution evaporates and salt in the mixture interacts with the food and drink residue and other objects on the table to form exquisitely complex, multi-tonal crystal patterns.

Ritual & Symbolism

Reception also reminded me of an exhibition Saskatoon sculptor Susan Shantz had at the MacKenzie in 1998 called Satiate. Like Reception, it featured a long table with assorted tools of food preparation and consumption on it. The objects evoked the idea of a feast — an association that Shantz reinforced by coating everything with tomato paste.

Satiate was capable of being read on many levels, but references to the ritual significance of food, mass production, gluttony and the role of food in sustaining our bodies were certainly present.

Finnigan’s installation has a similar resonance. Ritually, it recalls the Victorian tradition of high tea which, in its day, packed a lot of symbolism about class, decorum and the gender divide between men and women.

You could even throw in imperialism, since the British, at the peak of their colonial power, brought the high tea tradition to countries around world.

Teas are less common today, but they continue to be held, sometimes in relatively formal circumstances, other times in more relaxed settings. Even children get in on the act, as we’re reminded by a 2016 work by Finnigan that Fornwald included in the exhibition called Child’s Tea Service on French Porcelain Platter. Seeing it in the context of the main installation reminds us how, through toys and related play, children are introduced to various rituals to help prepare them for adult life.

Time Capsule

Just as the notion of a Victorian tea recalls a bygone era, Finnigan’s installation serves as a reminder of a past event — in this case, the day the reception was held.

Ordinarily, once an opening is over the dirty dishes are collected, the leftover food is put away, and the tables are removed from the gallery. Here, they’ll stay on display until the exhibition closes on March 22, so the installation does serve as a testament to the day people gathered for the tea party.

I’m no health inspector, but without the brine Finnigan applied to the table, I suspect Reception would now qualify as a hazard, with mold and different strains of bacteria growing on (or in) the bread, sandwich filling, dainties, veggies, cream and whatnot. But as has long been known by humanity, salt is a preservative that can prevent spoilage in heavy enough doses.  In pinches, it’s also a tasty additive that provides needed sodium to the body. And for a large chunk of our history, the mineral was a highly prized commodity.

With the rise of processed foods high in sodium, however, it’s become a major health risk, contributing to debilitating conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.

Salt will keep crystallizing on Reception’s various objects throughout out the exhibition, so attentive viewers will see changes each time they visit. Do yourself a favour and check it out. And bring some friends! I said “bring”, not “brine”.