Simryn Gill is the quintessential postcolonial artist, less so because of her transnational biography—Indian extraction, born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia and now based in Sydney—than because of her deep engagement with the history of colonial expansion in Southeast Asia. She obliquely traces that history’s effects on culture and landscape through objects, texts and photographs. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s recent retrospective of her work, organized in collaboration with Australia’s Queensland Art Gallery, provides an abbreviated overview of Gill’s accomplished career.
Forking Tongues (1992) demonstrates Gill’s early practice of accumulating and arranging found objects. The installation features alternating bands of dried red chili peppers and antique silver cutlery laid out as a large double spiral on a platform in the Sackler’s entrance pavilion, with a wall text informing us that both objects were introduced to Asia by European colonizers. While the installation acknowledges the role such objects play in the process of cultural exchange, it also demonstrates the differential effects each has had on local culinary practice and by extension cultural identity; the spicy red chili pepper, imported from South America, has become emblematic of South and Southeast Asia, but the cutlery, adopted by the local elite, retains the “civilizing” taint of the West.
In subsequent work Gill further explored the complex mechanics through which outside knowledge is “naturalized,’ using nature itself as both metaphor and subject. Forest (1996), a series of large black-and-white photographs, documents temporary installations in which Gill “seeded” various locations—a mangrove swamp, a beach, deserted colonial buildings, an abandoned army base, the garden of her family home—with cut-up texts shaped to mimic botanical forms like leaves, twigs and hanging roots. In her photographs, Gill manipulates the tonal range, depth of field and focus to blend the text into its natural surroundings. These images visually reverse the colonial discourse of the mastery of “culture” over “nature” epitomized in the sources of these text fragments, books like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
This interest in books, as both vehicles of knowledge and material objects, extends to Pearls (2000–06), for which Gill meticulously created strands of hand-rolled beads out of the pages of books donated by friends. The text is rendered illegible, the books serving as raw material for this newly created jewelry. Gill originally produced these works as gifts for the books’ owners, but was inspired to exhibit them after encountering similar beads and amulets in the Sackler’s galleries. In this context, Gill’s physical transformation of utilitarian objects into aesthetic artifacts serves as a metaphor for the symbolic transformations that occur within the histories of museums as institutions of colonialism.