Have you ever wondered what salt in large quantities smells like? The sea, maybe? Sweat? Or perhaps mossier, funkier, more dank? To get a whiff of it yourself, walk into METHOD Gallery in Pioneer Square, where Seattle artist Mary Coss's exhibition Groundswell is composed of the substance.
Groundswell explores the relationship between water, the effects of climate change, and humanity. Coss spent two years working with Roger Fuller, a spatial ecologist at Western Washington University, examining the dangerously increased salinity levels encroaching on local estuaries. Estuaries are where river, land, and ocean meet and mix—for instance, in the Skagit Valley, one of our fresh-water resources.
Coss and Fuller met three years ago at the Museum of Northwest Art at a speed-dating event. When the artist told me this, there must have been a shocked reaction on my face—she laughed and said it wasn't about that. It was a speed-dating-like format designed to connect artists and scientists, seemingly disparate professionals, to work on projects together.
The pair connected due to their shared interest in water. Coss was fascinated with Fuller's research in salinity and estuaries. "Salt was such a beautiful metaphor," she told me. "I could see it visually and I could see that story line."
Coss took this research and discussion around salinity to its extreme. It turns out, salt en masse looks like hard snow and smells familiar yet unique. Imagine a combination of swimming in the ocean and the word "damp." It's hard to describe.
On the left side of the gallery is an installation called Silent Salinity, a ghost meadow (as the artist calls it) made of 300 pieces of hand-tied wire sedge, a grass-like plant, dipped in abaca pulp, a type of fiber. Sedge, the primary plant life in the estuaries, is disappearing due to the recent appearance of barnacles in the ecosystem—a sign of even worse things to come. The ghost meadow in the gallery consists of crusted layers of salt, out of which stick salt-casted things like kelp, barnacles, and other organic matter.
The other day in the gallery, Coss was in the middle of installing a giant wave of tulle overhead. It's meant to represent Mother Nature fighting back. "Ultimately, the water will be here," Coss said, referring to her wave specifically and the future of this imperiled planet more generally. "We have a window where we have the opportunity to turn things around or not. And if we don't, we probably won't be here, but the water will."
Coss isn't alone in thinking this way. Fuller, with his science background, agrees. Along the back wall is a giant wire piece that from afar looks like a fishing net—but up close, it's clear that the net is composed of words. It's a journal entry written by Fuller and fashioned into a net by Coss.
The sentences reflect on the state of the estuaries and the impact of global warming: "Far up the shore there is still a remnant of marsh, pinned against the dike with no place left to shift. How long will this remnant last? Will anyone notice when this meadow too slips away, when it becomes a ghost meadow?"