trace: Leah Decter
January 19 – February 17, 2001

a response to the exhibition by Lori Fontaine

upon entering, i am drawn to the left – a long wall running the length of the gallery, broken by 3 pillars. here, evenly spaced, are 21 “tooth boxes”. within each meticulously-framed square is a single tooth, sculpted and then cast in lead, apparently suspended in space – held fast by a horizontal lead post.

teeth – things so very familiar, seen and used every day. a part of us. a part of so many others. rarely considered; rarely a source of constant awareness. here, isolated and displayed with meticulous care, they shine reverence. i imagine this the documentation of a history, of a group – each tooth belonging to or representing a member. as i stand before and move between them, the teeth cast shadows against themselves.

i pore over these teeth as i would an old photo album, a physical remnant of a life lived and counted; an essence of a life preserved. i cannot help but think of these teeth as trophies, as portraits. a story is being told – within this tribe or community, knowledge and information continue to pass.

from where does meaning come? when i look upon these teeth, what do i know of the individuals they represent? how open am i to possibilities? have i any assumptions?

towards the back of the gallery, on the opposite wall, a second element of trace is encountered. ten rows high and thirty-nine columns across: thin, smooth, flat, square plates of lead, each yielding the impression of a human bite. next to this large grid of teethmarks, the dimensions are repeated – small, flat, textured ceramic boxes, ten rows high and thirty-nine columns across; markers identifying the countries of origin of the biter’s maternal and paternal grandparents.

“…i also…explained to him that with a sheet of lead you can also line coffins for the dead, so that they don’t grow worms but become dry and thin, and so the soul too is not dispersed, which is a fine advantage…”¹

there is so much here. everything about the work speaks of time, of process and of care. the clay markers have been textured and treated with encaustic to suggest an indeterminate and significant age. the lead plates have been neatly fastened to the wall with horizontal posts at the top of each corner.

this work arrests with beauty. it utters thought, tenderness, discipline and respect. trace is dense with layers of meaning and question. everywhere the work seems to call to contradiction opposites, not the least of which are its overall quiet and commanding power.

here, intuition and deliberation balance. the question is raised: how do we interpret/create ideas about other people? assumption and the dislocation of truth. (in fact, the numbers imprinted on each bite-plate do not correspond to the numbers on the ceramic markers.) lead – poisonous and protective; soft and malleable, yet so very heavy. the mouth – a border between the interior and exterior of the self.

teeth – so common. we share these with so many other forms of life. they are strong points of connection, of likeness and shared experience where human as animal becomes more transparent; where we are humbled and given an opportunity to view ourselves within a larger scheme of things; where a sense of vulnerability begins to stir.

examining these imprints, i am struck by what cannot be read. here gender, ethnicity, height, weight, shape, ability, sexual orientation, age, spiritual, philosophical and political belief, colour of skin, sound, language, and accent of voice leave no trace.

whether any of the individuals represented is currently alive is unknown – ultimately, these plates will outlive their living origins.

“…and still with lead you can cast small funeral statues, not shiny like bronze, but in fact a bit dark, a bit subdued, as is suitable to objects of mourning.”²

…which leads to the overall impression, when standing before these grids, that the markers suggest some funerary monument. while contemplating these exquisite little life-markers, i become aware of the movement of my eyes – darting back and forth, comparing the shape, form, and depth of the impressions. in an attempt to find or create meaning, i wonder about the person who made those marks, knowing i too am capable of that; that although i am not represented here, i may be; i could be.

i study the ancestral markers, looking to see something of myself, wanting to connect with this whole and at the same time happy in the knowledge that, in some way, my history remains unique.

“…if one goes beyond appearances, lead is actually the metal of death: because it brings on death, because its weight is a desire to fall, and to fall is a property of corpses, because its very colour is dulled – dead, because it is the metal of the planet Tuisto, which is the slowest of the planets, that is, the planet of the dead…”³

with simplicity and elegance, Leah Decter has accomplished something quite remarkable.

facing row upon row, i feel something which i have only known as a concept in mind.

it is now accorded as true that all is simultaneous. the day you were born and the day you die and everything in between are now. time and space do not exist as separate entities in any real sense; we have created these constructs to help us understand our physical experience of the vastness of it all.

rarely have i had occasion to experience something which touches this truth in me, however vaguely.

standing before these statements of life, row upon row. they suggest another time, another place; all here, all now.

the intricacy of this work floods me. i am aware of the space between individual, distinct lives (the details of which i know nothing) and the vastness of our collective history.

i return to what is here visible and tangible; the exquisite beauty within this piece. meticulous care has been applied everywhere – concept, process and presentation; orderly rows, lovingly installed. each piece reveals its precious treatment – dull and gleaming, smooth and rough complement.

drawn to pore over these physical considerations, at a point i stop. as i stand very still, the sense of the fusion of time returns.

“…in my opinion, lead is a material different from all other materials, a metal which you feel is tired, perhaps tired of transforming itself and that does not want to transform itself anymore: the ashes of who knows how many other elements full of life, which thousands upon thousands of years ago were burned in their own fire.”4

i stand here as a witness to the existence of these lives and perhaps others. i cannot help but believe this to be a memorial to all those who have been lost, all at once, all through time, where the details and the impact of individual lives have been lost, having been defined in the loss of the collective.

immediately i think of the holocaust of the second world war – of books and passages read, of photographs and film footage. i imagine millions more – mostly women; many centuries. i imagine the colours of the time, the clothing, the music, the land and its smell. then, in our own time, genocides of varying degree. on the other side of the globe. closer to home.

i cannot help but be drawn backwards, somehow feeling that at this moment i am a vehicle of release for lives lost so long ago.

i see the earth – our gentle ball in space – enveloped in a mist of grief. it is as though some kind of bizarre and incredible magic has been summoned.

Leah has created this thing – this healing wall, this potential for an awakening of a wisdom and depth and connectedness of soul for each person who stands before it and who is willing to be with it, open-hearted and vulnerable…

there is the opportunity for healing – one need only see, feel, allow.

the grief floods me…in its presence i am called to weep. a beautiful and gentle cleansing weep. i see that veil of pain surrounding our little blue world begin to thin, unravel, dissolve.

1-4 Primo Levi, “lead.” from The Periodic Table (New York: Schocken books, 1984), pp. 86-7.

Lori Fontaine lives in Winnipeg with her partner and three cats. She lives her art here every day.