Art by Elaine Whittaker

TETHER

2009

by Ruth Roach Pierson

*Professor Emerita and author of "Aide-Mémoire"

*2008 Governor General finalist for poetry

Viewers are going to get a charge out of this exhibit, or rather two kinds of charge – negative and positive. One of Whittaker’s great gifts is her ability to plumb emotional depths by juxtaposing the scientific with the personal, the technological with the psychological and the spiritual. In this show she examines the process of human grief through the lens of the science of nerves. Surrounded by pulsing, electric sound created by Larry Sulky, the gallery visitor walks through images and artifacts of positively stunning beauty leading to a confrontation with the pain of loss.

The metaphor, or simile if you prefer, underlying this show is that of the body electric. Whittaker has based the installation on the similarity between an electrical grid – the network for transmitting and distributing electricity – and the human body’s internal communication system – the transmission of commands from the brain to muscles and sensory signals to the brain by means of impulses traveling at great speed along a network of nerve cells.

Upon entering the gallery, one faces an arrangement of small wax-coated metal boxes sprouting wire filaments. These, a prelude to the nervy nature of the show, form a cluster like individual neurons, each with its gray matter nucleus and each shooting out an array of dendrites, those cellular extensions with many branches that reach out to nearby neurons. Reach out, but don’t actually touch. The flow of information jumps from one neuron’s dendrites to another’s over spaces, called synapses, that control the direction of the flow. The delicacy of these boxes and especially their intricate splay of tiny wires speak to the vulnerability of human intra-body as well as inter-human communication.

Tether is a site-specific installation that exploits the special L shape of the Red Head Gallery. On one wall, hangs a larger-than-life-size photograph of the artist’s torso – tensed, back to the camera, naked, spread arms extending upward in a gesture that could suggest either hailing a new day or being stretched on the rack. A length of white nautical rope evocative of an exposed spinal cord sheathed in white matter runs down her back like a palomino’s or a comet’s tail. Shooting off either side of the cord are pieces of shiny flat wire resembling the thirty-one pairs of nerve endings delivering messages into and carrying them out of the spinal cord, some of them splitting at their ends into dendrite-like forkings.

Bundled like the nerve endings within the spinal cord, this glistening white rope falls down from the artist’s torso onto the floor and runs along it toward a series of hanging wire grids, five on a line. As it approaches them, the twisted rope begins to unravel into separate strands that, tendril-like, climb up to and enmesh themselves into the first grid traveling through it onto the next and the next. A parade of these grids proceeds to the column standing like a hydro tower at the corner of the L and, turning the corner, continues along the longer arm to a second and then a third power pole. Reaching it, the frayed nerve endings begin to reassemble themselves into a main transmission line, a rebundled white cord, that rises up to the ceiling and across it before descending into an electrical power box.

Take a moment to study the hanging grids laden, as they are, with meaning. They are, of course, reminiscent of an electrical grid system. At the same time they also signify the nervous system’s sites of synaptic junction where nerve impulses jump from one terminal to another, the synapse operating simultaneously as a gap and a locus of connection. Frosted with salt crystals (Whittaker’s trademark material) and looking like vent screens or cookie racks, the grids vibrate in the air currents. Salt, a necessary element in the dispersal of energy in the body, is slowly eroding the wire grids into rust and copper, their slow dissolution enacting a powerful symbol of our own inevitable disintegration.

Tether culminates in the image of a disembodied robe. In contrast to the artist’s arms, the arms of the robe hang down. And we are looking not at the back of the robe but at its front, and not at a real woolen plaid robe but a black and white photo. Hanging empty, the well-worn robe is that of the artist’s father who recently died. Attached to it is the grey, industrial power box, its breaker switched to off.

While the installation has universal significance, for the artist herself it serves as both a eulogy to her father, an electrical engineer, and an act of mourning his passing. Some of the ideas behind the show were developed during the artist’s many visits with him toward the end of life. He taught her about electricity, drawing diagrams to help her understand as she took notes.

The white nautical rope extending from the artist’s spine to the power box attached to her father’s robe at the level of his chest symbolizes the artist’s spinal cord connecting her to the nerve centre, the heart, of her father. And though the robe that once warmed her father now hangs empty and he is no longer bodily present, psychically and spiritually he still sparks inspiration in his daughter, and she remains tethered to him by memory and inheritance. An alternating current continues to traverse the cord from daughter to father and from father to daughter.