Written by Joni Low
In an age of geopolitics, water is no less neutral than the land that is bordered, fought over, claimed and reclaimed. Living on the West coast, I am too often romanced by the endless sight of it, meeting the blue of the mountains on the horizon, to consider its continual risk of commodification, the endangerment of its species, the power and significance attached to this resource, and the extent of what’s at stake.
This is a time when very few natural resources are spared the fate of a commodity, and the ocean is no exception. New York writer James Ridgeway observes how, “as time goes on and both science and globalization advance, the list of commodities grows…things that were free, unlimited, or beyond the pale of human commerce – have become commodities today. Continental ocean shelves are being divided up and distributed out for fish farms, fishing rights and minerals. In the United States, the ocean is slowly being privatized, justified by the need for oil drilling and in the interests of ‘national security’. The situation is less commercialized on Canada’s West coast: the federal government has extended a 1972 moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling, and has conducted scientific and public research while engaging with coastal communities on these issues. However, the Liberal B.C. government is advocating oil and gas exploration on the coast of the Pacific Ocean by 2010. This is scary, but not very surprising.
Pacific Ocean, Kim Huynh’s simulacra of these contested waters, is a complex interaction of personal and social signifiers. The central materials of the installation – copper and salt – are loaded with potential and historical meaning. Copper shelves, scattered on the wall to form the contours of the Pacific coast, are piled high with a mix of coarse salts and various commodities: bulky, saltencrusted equipment used for marine research and the exploitation of natural resources, and heaps of dried seeds and salted, preserved orange peels. Traditionally used for Chinese medicine, these dried goods have also preserved her childhood memories (her father was an herbalist; they used to put them under the bed or out in the sun to dry, and they would dust them off before storing them). These stories reference simpler times and the more frugal acts of use, saving, preservation. Over time she has re-enacted these rituals, accumulating these exhausted remnants while not really understanding why.
Salt has long been valued for its ability to preserve foods – particularly vegetables, fish and meat. In developing countries, it is still widely used for these purposes. In developed countries, the majority of salt produced is used for industry: the manufacturing of chlorine and caustic sodas, soap, rocket fuels, and agricultural chemicals. Approximately 20% is used for the de-icing of roads, with less than 3% going to home consumption. Copper is one of the earliest metals people used for making tools, sculpture, plumbing pipes, roofing, and domestic articles. Ridgeway points out how “its more recent history and current history are closely tied to electricity”. Copper has been the conduit, the ‘metal of the electric age’, a commodity that has supported the Industrial Revolution and human progress; it has also been embroiled in political power struggles and manipulative market controls.
Copper and salt, each fraught with complex social and cultural histories, and contrasting values in first and third world nations, are both widely used commodities. In Pacific Ocean, they are brought into close contact, one corroding the other in an effacement of their identities as commodities.
The contact point of copper with salt might symbolize a disintegration of their historical burdens, or a foreshadowing of our environmental demise. Both the process and outcome of the installation are discomfortingly inconclusive. One might imagine a dramatic climax, of shelves collapsing, while the contents cascade onto the floor in the middle of the night and set off the motion sensor in the gallery. Or perhaps there will be the tiniest of changes – slight discolorations on the shiny amber surface, the smallest variation in texture and imprint. The stability of a known ending is curiously absent.
What is stability, really? Again Kim Huynh tests our modern complacencies, our expectation for answers, rendering everyday materials slightly absurd in an unexpected manner. Her visual language requires an active participation on the part of the viewer, similar to the ways a foreigner or new immigrant may translate the new system of thoughts and languages they find themselves surrounded by. The estranged approach to society is a positioning that micro-historian Carlo Ginzburg sees as detached, critical – an alternative perception of that which is usually concealed by habit and convention. “Estrangement seems a good antidote to a risk we all face: that of taking the world, and ourselves, for granted.” It’s time we re-acquaint ourselves with the world and with the knowledge of the past, but on our own terms, with our own minds. While will and imagination may be limitless, renewable resources, time, in this situation, is scarce.