There's something quintessentially English about Bobby Baker. The persona she adopts in her performance art pieces, that of the middle-aged housewife, is at one with the everyday products that turn up in her current presentation, a revival of 2001's Box Story: Bryant & May matches, Colman's mustard. Her eccentricity, too, is in the finest English tradition, as she tells autobiographical anecdotes whilst constructing a "map" on the floor out of these substances, washing powder, icing sugar, white wine from a three-litre box and so on. And yet, almost unnoticed, she also hits on the universal.
Baker almost always works with food, whether it's baking (and then wearing) antlers out of dough or immersing herself in a bath of chocolate custard. Through this, she touches on matters of emotional or spiritual nourishment as well. She's not at all explicit; there's never a sense of cerebral earnestness, any stroking of that handsome chin of hers. All her facial communication comes through a range of smiles: the warm grin, the sheepish half-smile, the rueful smirk, the embarrassed rictus. She welcomes us into her life, and somehow shows us ourselves in the process.
After lugging a fridge-freezer-sized box onto the stage, Baker reveals that all it contains are more boxes of the aforementioned everyday stuff: a carton of Just Juice, a packet of cornflakes and the like. Then the stories and the map-making begin. Each anecdote ends in a misfortune, some trivial – schoolchildren greedily failing to appreciate her painstakingly made "jelly worlds" some tragic – her father being washed out to sea during a family holiday. At the end of each, a virtual choir on a video screen sings a remonstration, or sometimes just the words off the appropriate package (I cherish the refrain of "anionic surfactants" and the Bulgarian-style vocal flourishes on the word "jelly").
Gradually, the sense builds up that this is a Pandora-like tale, that these nastinesses are being literally let out of the box; so that, when Baker peoples her miniature island with Black Magic chocolates, identifying them as victims of incest or plane crashes, it's obliquely but palpably shocking. Her final verdict is also that of a housewife: "What a terrible mess... what a waste." And she proves that, literally and metaphorically, you can't put the stuff safely back in the box again, not even if you crawl in there with it. As always with Bobby Baker, it's a bizarre experience, akin to being mugged with a jam roly-poly, but somehow successfully.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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