Detritus by Jonathan Schipper

An interactive salt-based art installation, complete with a usable jacuzzi, that exists in a constant state of change


Humans have, and continue to be, in a constant push to alter our surroundings to suit our individual needs. From the first settlements of early man to modern suburban sprawl, our necessity to build and change, despite our technological advances, is always kept in check by larger natural forces. However, the ways in which we experience time—our time signature—does not allow us to see the impact of civilization from a broader time scope akin to something like a geological time frame. In his new installation “Detritus,” Jonathan Schipper explores themes of creation, destruction and time perspective using an unlikely medium of salt. “Salt is an interesting material. We need it to live and it’s everywhere; it’s beautiful. I like the way it relates to geology and in this case we can make things out of it,” he says.

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Keeping in step with Schipper’s affinity for industrial-themed sculptures, “Detritus” is composed of a laptop-controlled salt extruder rigged on a pulley and cable system that travels throughout the room, creating salt models of human-formed objects which span buildings to junkyard scraps. “There are four spools and winches; by varying the lengths of the cables we can move the extruder anywhere in the room,” says Schipper. “It can adjust to any room, so it’s flexible for installations.” Using a program developed with the help of his son, Schipper can program the extruder to travel throughout the room in patterns, creating various structures with the building-like foundations, taking about an hour to complete.


Schipper explores the idea of art objects as ephemeral rather than permanent. “I think that the art world gets so stuck on value and commodity and those kind of ideas,” he explains. “The idea that you can take ideas and put them into an object and it’s going to stay crystallized forever is really a falsehood, and these pieces show how that logic is a falsehood.” The work is meant to be experienced, not just looked at. Walking through the sparsely lit space, coarse granules of salt crunching underfoot, as the extruder travels about building a bound-to-crumble landscape and the hot tub bubbles and steams, there is no shortage of sensory stimuli. The ongoing creation of a landscape strewn with manmade artifacts in a primordial material lends perspective on so-called “things” in our world.

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“We’re always making all these things in the world,” Schipper explains, “we get so attached to them that I feel like in a way we never get to step back and really see what we’re doing. By turning them into more geology pieces and extracting them a bit, I’m hoping you can sort of see them in a longer scope of time.” Referencing a geology lecture on time signatures, Schipper notes the differences in which various organisms and landscapes might experience time. As humans, he mentions, we often see our created objects in only their best form, failing to appreciate their lasting yet constantly changing state.


While a functioning (and indeed welcoming) jacuzzi is a rare thing in New York City, for Schipper it was a necessary addition to his installation. The water that mixes with the salt in the extruder comes from the tub, and as Schipper jokes, “Every salt structure has a bit of soul in it.” Growing up in California, he says it was easy to get bogged down in how messy and sloppy people could be, but at the right time of evening, from the right vantage point—for instance, a jacuzzi—there was a certain beauty in the mess. “This is the sort of environment I’m trying to recreate,” he says. “It’s also a fun thing to have at a gallery in the city, where you never have time to do this sort of thing.”

“Detritus” is currently on display in The Boiler at Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg through 24 November. For the full experience, bring a bathing suit and watch as sculptures are erected, all from a built-in jacuzzi.

Photos by Hans Aschim