This is an instrument I have never seen before. A slender dark wooden box, one side opening to become a bellow, pushed back and forth in a solemn rhythm by the hand of the performer. It emits an uncompromising, steady monotone drone, which accompanies a sombre and melancholic chant: ‘This is a la……-ment’.
Common Salt is a self-styled ‘show-and-tell’; it moves somewhere between theatre, performance art, and story-telling. Two performers – Sue Palmer and Sheila Ghelani – stand at one end of a table covered in a grey cloth, with audience seated in a semi-circle around the other end. As the performance goes on, the table top becomes gradually covered in objects, precisely (and sometimes playfully imprecisely) added to illustrate a series of interlocking stories.
‘This is a Shruti box,’ Ghelani informs us as she begins operating the strange musical instrument. It looks like a sort of emaciated melodeon. A quick internet search informs me that the Shruti box is evolved from a harmonium, and is used particularly in Indian music to give a pitch reference to singers.
On the other side of the table is a simple wooden bookstand which holds large printed images, used to illustrate the stories. This steam-punkish set-up places us in a limbo of time as well as of genre, and the eclectic surroundings of the Wellcome Reading Room, complete with Victorian dental chairs and modern sculptures of foetuses, provide an eerie counterpoint.
The hedge is a central theme, whence narrative branches stretch, thickets evolve, and gaps appear.
What is it about? We begin with a maze, the maze at Hampton Court Palace, and specifically the thing which constitutes the maze: the hedge. The maze becomes a recurring metaphor for the plot, and the hedge is a central theme, whence narrative branches stretch, thickets evolve, and gaps appear.
Three broad narratives intertwine throughout the piece: author Roy Moxham’s uncovering of a vast hedge of thousands of miles which once stretched across India as a customs barrier to charge a levy on salt; the account of Eliza Brightwen, nineteenth-century naturalist, and what become of her home and prodigious menagerie at The Grove in Stanmore; and the continued trickle-through within our modern financial set-ups of the East India Trading Company (neatly encompassed by the handily-named hedge-fund).
There are many facts, geographies and characters that make up this narrative, and it is to the performers’ credit that we are not completely swamped by it all over the approximately hour-long ‘show and tell’ performance. Multiple threads find connections by accounts of the performers’ own research and journeys, through linked geographies, recited tube-line stations, journeys of ships across the seas, and the lives of nineteenth-century characters such as Octavian Hume and Guglielmo Marconi.
There is a strong political and, dare I say, didactic thread running through about the inability of humans to learn from the mistakes of the past, allowing the atrocities of the ‘British Raj’ to be carried forth in the reckless activities of the financial markets with their hearts in the East India Docks. Occasionally, this grates, but filmic flights of fancy into the biography of Eliza Brightwen, who became a naturalist later in her life and contributed to the founding of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, alleviate some of the potential moralistic pressures of the colonial narratives.
By the end, the table is scattered with salt, miniature plastic hedges, dead flowers, cardboard cut-outs of lifeless modern suburban houses…
I am drawn to the precision of the performance’s narrative structure. The theatrical moment of transformation from pre-amble to beginning is ably manipulated through each performer donning a tie, as if in front of a mirror. Thereafter, the work forms across seven ‘turns’ regularly sign-posted to the audience in a gently self-aware way. This precision is matched by the quality of movement from Sheila Ghelani, who mostly takes the right-brain role of the two in playing the Shruti box, chanting, moving props and pieces on and off the table, with Sue Palmer as a left-brain constant, who broadly provides the narrative content of the piece through her story-telling. The choreographic nature of the piece is perhaps not a surprise given Ghelani’s background in dance.
As the piece evolves, we become party to the material documentation of the ephemeral story-telling. A container of salt is gradually emptied to form a small mountain covering Victorian silver salt cellars; an aesthetic rhythmic moment in which we admire the apparently ceaseless flow of salt shining in the light of the desk-lamp that serves as a lo-fi spotlight. It is set against an account of the brutal and greed-driven policy of charging a tax levy on salt in India during the British Empire period; a levy that was protested in 1930 by Mohandas Gandhi and was lifted only six months before the British left India in 1947.
By the end of the piece, the table – at first nearly empty – is scattered with the salt heap, miniature plastic hedges, dead flowers, cardboard cut-outs of lifeless modern suburban houses which now occupy The Grove, Brightwen’s former home. Encountering this installation without having witnessed its coming-into-being could point to a confusion of unlinked threads; and to a certain extent this would be true. But the precision of the form, the deliberateness of the structure, and the humanity of the performance give just enough connective tissue to the slippery threads of history, politics, geography and biography. I sense that the artists kept many roads open during their four-year research period. Perhaps there are too many points of entry and not quite as much plaiting together of threads as there could be. But this way, they avoid a ‘corporate silver sign’ (as found in the centre of Hampton Court Maze) of a plot too neat, and manage to gesture in many directions, gently and playfully guiding our investigative tendrils towards whichever area of knowledge might catch our fancy.
Image credits: Paul Samuel White