Friday, 20 April 2012

Elephant No. 201: Sprinkled Salt Art

There are many types of salt art, but today I thought I'd try the kind that involves sprinkling plain white salt over a black surface.

Table salt—which is what I'll be using today—is a compound of sodium and chloride (NaCl). Although essential for animals and plants in small quantities, it can be harmful if too much is consumed. As I noted in a previous blog post, even elephants will die of salt poisoning if they are unable to find enough water to dilute the salt they consume.

Although salt is ubiquitous today in food, it was once a valuable substance, particularly as a preservative for meat. As far back as 6050 B.C., people of the Neolithic Precucuteni Culture in Romania were boiling the water from a salt spring to distill salt, and it has been suggested that the rapid growth of this society's population is directly related to the availability of this important mineral.

In China, salt was harvested from Xiechi Lake in Shanxi as early as 6000 B.C., and salt—along with salted birds and fish—was placed in Ancient Egyptian tombs beginning in the third millennium B.C. By 2800 B.C., the Egyptians were exporting salt fish to the Phoenicians in return for glass, cedar and Tyrian purple dye. The Phoenicians in turn traded Egyptian salt fish and salt from North Africa throughout the Mediterranean trade. The Phoenician city of Carthage was also famously (and perhaps erroneously) sowed with salt in ancient times. After rasing the city to the ground in 146 B.C., the Romans are said to have poured salt over the city to ensure that the land would remain unproductive for years to come.

Around 800 B.C., Celtic communities began mining salt, and by 400 B.C. they were trading salt and salted meat to Ancient Greece for luxuries such as wine. The word "salary", as many know, originates from the Latin word salarium, which referred to the money that Roman soldiers were given to buy salt. The word "salad" actually means "salted", and comes from the Ancient Roman practice of salting leafy greens.

Across the Sahara, the Tuareg have long maintained routes for salt caravans, and as late as 1960 these caravans were still transporting 15,000 tonnes of salt a year. Today, the trade involves roughly one-third that amount.  

Interestingly, some of the ancient salt-producing sites in Austria derive their names from the word salz, which means "salt". Salzburg, for example—which literally means "salt city"—lies on the River Salzach, which means "salt water".

The type of salt art that involves sprinkling salt over a surface—rather than gluing coloured salt or adding salt to wet paint—is similar in many ways to bonseki. Salt is sprinkled over a dark surface, then pushed into place with some kind of tool. To get different tonal variations, extra layers are built up until the desired density is achieved. For a video of artist Bashir Sultani creating this type of work, click here.

I can remember making salt art with paint when I was about eight years old, and I actually thought that salt art was primarily a children's activity. Clearly, I'm out of touch. Today, artists are creating astonishing works with simple table salt, from room-sized installations, to three-dimensional forms.

Japanese artist Yamamoto Motoi creating
Forest of Beyond
, 2012.
Each tendril is a poured line of salt.

For today's elephant, I used a sheet of plain black bristol board, and basic table salt in a small shaker that I probably bought for cinnamon or something. This particular shaker has largish holes, but it didn't really matter in the end. 

I had no clue what I was doing, so I more or less followed the basic method used by Bashir Sultani in one of his videos. The tool he uses seems to be a folded piece of paper—which makes sense to me as a way of pushing salt around—so I did that, too. These are honestly all the tools you need.

I started by sprinkling a fine dusting of salt where I thought the elephant's head might go. I didn't have any preconceived design in mind, so I was mostly waiting to see what occurred to me as I worked. 

I pushed this first bit of salt around rather tentatively, not doing much more than creating a thin outline for the top of the elephant's head. I quickly discovered that the best part of the paper to use for this is a thin, unfolded edge. An unfolded edge is slightly sharper, allowing the salt to be manipulated in a fairly precise way.

Guessing that it might be very difficult to remove excess salt, I continued to apply it somewhat delicately. I sprinkled a light dusting in strategic areas to form a trunk and the beginnings of an ear, then added a bit more over the lower ear and bottom of the jawline to provide some dimension.

You can form very fine lines by gently pushing the salt into place with the edge of the paper. You can also remove salt to make lines and open spaces by shoving the sand aside. I found that a sort of wiggling motion worked best to remove salt, as just pushing it forwards will simply deposit it where you may not want it.

I began forming a body next, although I only wanted to put in part of the elephant's back and a bit of its chest.

After this, I just kept working various parts of the drawing, sprinkling salt over areas that I wanted to build up, and pushing things around. At one point, my piece of paper actually wore out, becoming too floppy to use, so I guess you'd need at least two of these high-tech tools.

To finish up, I added a spray of water—or dust, if you prefer—from the elephant's trunk, since salt seemed the perfect medium for this particular effect.

This was surprisingly easy, and only took me about 20 minutes from beginning to end. I recommend the Bashir Sultani video link above to give you a better idea of how to make this kind of salt art, but you're really only limited by your imagination. Obviously it helps if you know how to draw, but an abstract using this technique would be interesting as well.

I'm quite happy with the final result, and wish I could keep it. In fact, from now on, I may never look at salt the same way.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Since today's blog post is about salt, I thought I'd write about elephants and pepper. With the growing incidence of human-elephant conflict, many people are working on solutions which will protect human lives, while also not harming elephants. Electric fencing, although relatively common in some areas, is beyond the reach of most farmers—and can also be ineffective once elephants have learned how to drop logs on top of it.

Other solutions include strings of bells to at least warn people that elephants are in the vicinity, patrols, ditches and berms, water and even firebreaks. One of the most novel new ideas, however, involves chili peppers.

Researchers in Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley have developed a number of low-tech pepper-based deterrents that could be used by small farms. Because capsaicin—the active ingredient in chili peppers—is an irritant to elephants, researchers have found that chili peppers not only keep elephants away from crops, but also prevent them from seeing farm raids as a good idea.

Aerial view of crop-raiding elephants heading for a farm, Kenya.

Farmers are being taught to use the peppers in a number of ways. They plant bands of chilies as a buffer zone between their more valuable crops and elephant habitats. They erect string fences with bells, and coat the string with chili-infused grease. And they burn chili briquettes around their fields. 

The reasoning goes that, by gaining some sense of control in the short term, farmers will be less antagonistic towards elephants—and less likely to shoot, poison or otherwise harm them. For more on the Elephant Pepper Trust initiative, click here.

Felix looks over his ruined fields after a herd of elephants has been through, Kenya.


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