Salt is an immersive arts degustation. I’ve quite deliberately misappropriated the term ‘degustation’ [the careful, appreciative tasting of various foods, generally taken in good company] as this imparted itself as an ideal transition, because each segment-course is a unique work of its own volition.
Eliza Weirwight, discussing Salt
Salt is the title of the immersive installation by Eliza Weirwight, which formally opened over the weekend of June 16th and 17th, 2018. In terms of her non-commercial work, Eliza is perhaps best known for developing installations that reflect issues that concern her. This was certainly the case when I first encountered her work through her 2013 piece 35 Elephants, which you can read about in my article here.
This embodiment of matters that concern and / or have influenced Eliza are very much at the heart of Salt which, as Eliza notes in her introduction (quoted above), stands not as a single installation per se, but as a collection of scenes or elements or vignettes – call them what you will – which stand as pieces in and of themselves, but which all are drawn together via subtle threads of thought and outlook.
I will say from the top that this is not an easy installation to interpret. There is a deep layering of themes, whether they are in support of LGBTQ rights or statements speaking out against violence or inequality. In particular, there is a strong commentary on matter such as the objectification of women, gender-based violence, sexual predation, discrimination, hatred and on the state of “western” society as a whole which some may well find discomfiting. But so too is the installation richly emotive and evocative.
To define Salt, it is necessary to provide a little background information: while it is itself a new installation in and of itself, Salt has been a work gestating in thought and ideas for some time, as Eliza explains:
I was asked to produce a piece for One Billion Rising [Fourth Position]. It was eight little segments addressing things that were concerning to me … Some of the topics had such gravity, I refused to see them as disposable, and I had this idea bouncing around my head for a few years that I want to do this big thing, so I’ve woven a lot of that original work into Salt, because just about everything in this work matters to me. Some of it is my stories, and some of it is other people’s stories
Eliza Weirwight, discussing the origins of Salt
The “other people’s” stories Eliza references encompasses all those who have faced prejudice and / or hatred of any kind, be it based on gender, race, colour, sexual orientation or sexual predation. Within some of these issues she has drawn directly on the lives of others – notably Marilyn Monroe and Phan Thi Kim Phuc; within others, she has drawn upon the work of artist of all genres – painters, writers, poets, musicians, to add flavour (depth) to the framing of the subjects represented by them. These influencers include – but are not limited to – David Bowie, Andy Warhol, M.C. Escher, Edgar Degas, William Blake, Maya Angelou, Pablo Neruda, and Norman Rockwell.
The way these influencers are used is both intricate and subtle. For example, the very design of the structure housing Salt is mathematically precise in it use of shapes, whilst also offering something a challenge to the eye. Thus through it, we catch a glimpse of Eliza’s own appreciation for Escher’s work and the way in which it has captivated her thinking over the years. Elsewhere within the installation, Blake’s masterpiece The Tyger sits with a section related to violence, and thus its complex questioning on the nature of the creative force behind a creature as deadly as tiger becomes transformed into troubling questions on the subject of violence and those who would so willingly visit it upon others, becoming a further provocative motif within the section in which it sits.
Some of these references are delicately nuanced. The row of soup tins in Campbell’s Soup brand colours might initially appear to be “just” a homage to Andy Warhol. However the labels on these cans offer a statement on the ease with which bigotry and vitriol can be espoused on the basis of other people’s sexuality. Given Warhol’s own sexual orientation and attitudes prevalent in “respectable” society towards male homosexuality throughout most of his life, there is a deeper poignancy contained within this piece than might first be apparent.
While the vignettes and scenes within Salt do, as noted, stand individually, so too can they complement each other, adding a further richness of narrative to taste and consider. Take, as another example, the exceptionally poignant section on Marilyn Monroe. Framed around an excerpt of six-page letter she wrote to the psychiatrist who would find her dead a year later, it cannot fail to evoke sympathy at the depth of personal suffering individuals can experience as we reflect of Monroe’s own life and suffering and the price that can be paid as a result of societal expectations.
But there is also a broader narrative here as well. Within the section, there are two images – Monroe examining a small sculpture of Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans by Edgar Degas – a man famous for his paintings of ballet dancers, and second of Monroe practising ballet. Both images offer a visual link back to the preceding section (in which a representation of Petite Danseuse de Quatorze can be found), although there is more at work thematically between the two sections.
As the quotes from likes of Vanity Fair and The Guardian accompanying the representation of Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans note, the manner in which Degas presented ballet dancers can often contain an almost misogynistic delight in portraying the pain and suffering inherent in their craft, somewhat objectifying them. Elsewhere in his art there can be a sense of male sexual predation. Thus, given that a lot of Monroe’s own suffering was a direct result of the objectification she faced, together sexual predation, the placing these two elements together within Salt intertwines the two, presenting visitors with a much more intense sense of narrative shared by both.
As noted, some of the vignettes can be discomfiting for some. I found it interesting that Eliza indicates one of her friends abhors the element This Is – Not Just – America, which was enough for Eliza to consider removing it (as it is, it sits roped-off from the rest of the installation, although you can still enter it). I’m glad she did opt to retain it: to me, the relevance of the piece is both clear and justified. Casting an alternative light on viral music video This Is America by Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), Eliza’s representation underlines the fact that the cultural issues portrayed in the video are not just restricted to America.
(As an aside here, I would note this section is interactive – you should have media enabled in the viewer when viewing it – you can disable it again as you move on through Salt. Also, if the cultural references in the original video escape you, I suggest watching this explanatory breakdown.)
I found the further I travelled through Salt, the more layered it became – as did my responses to them. Admittedly, some of the references aren’t also easy to grasp, so Eliza has provided a note card outlining her influencers and influences. However, if you can (and depending on your knowledge of art and western cultural influences / history) I’d suggest you try to put off reading the card for as long as possible and just let the scenes speak for themselves; the way the seeds of ideas and perspectives are planted and quietly grow to inform one’s thinking, understanding and appreciation is marvellously subtle. That said, I do admit the notes did bring context and focus to the stories from Eliza’s own family and past.
I promised myself that if I was going to air other people’s stories in this work, I had to have the guts to air my own; otherwise I’m just using other people’s hard knocks as a commodity.
Eliza Weirwight, discussing the inclusion of elements relating to her life and family
Given all of this, suffice it to say this is an installation not to be visited in a hurry; it is – like the culinary event Eliza uses to describe it, Salt is something to be sampled and savoured gently. The wealth of symbolism and the breadth of topics presented is a lot to take in, and it is no exaggeration when I say every image, model, excerpt, lyric or stanza comes with it own substance – dare I say, its own taste – making almost every aspect of the installation nuanced in some way. Thus, it is important that a visit to Salt isn’t rushed, but is perhaps taken in stages, allowing time for what is presented to be digested and reflected upon. Avoid trying to gorge yourself in a single time-limited visit.
For my part, I can honestly say that Salt is one of the most remarkable and absorbing installations I’ve visited in my nigh-on ten years of writing about Second Life art – as evidenced by the 5+ hours I’ve thus far spent within it. Were I to critique it at all, it would be that in places some indication of where to go might be of value; the phantom doors aren’t always obvious when closed. When you do visit, make sure you have Advanced Lighting Model enabled in the viewer (Preferences > Graphics), and do mouse around the various scenes and pay attention the to signage, as some can contain interactive elements.
- Salt (LEA 7, rated: Moderate).