Good artists have a way of taking over your psychic space. Exiting Simryn Gill’s solo survey exhibition “Gathering,” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), I started to comb through material layers in downtown Sydney with the kind of ardent attention Gill instigates. With Gill-colored glasses, even squashed cans and discarded ring-pulls take on the glamour of millefiori paperweights and Limoges pill-boxes; the jack-hammered section of a building revealed the roots of a palm tree and made me wonder: is it or isn’t it art?
Gill resides alternately in Sydney and the seaside village of Port Dickson, 90 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur, where her inclination for beachcombing or raking over urban landscapes is given legitimate exercise. Sea-worn glass, telephone-line insulators and migrating coconuts are put to use by a mind adept at seeking relevance for objects that tell stories about the crosscurrents of the colonial legacy, or fables on the directives of loot, trade and capital.
Curated by Russell Storer, “Gathering” featured new artworks and a selection of books, sketches, collections and experimental pieces from the early 1990s to the present. It included recent photographic works such as May 2006 (2006), a series of more than 800 images that Gill took over a month of walks around her Sydney neighborhood using discontinued film stock nearing its expiration date, and “Run” (2006), a photographic series in which she records her visit to the tiny Indonesian island of Pulau Run, where two wars were fought in the 17th century over the trade in nutmeg and mace and which was later exchanged by the Dutch to the British for the island of Manhattan.
In a concurrent exhibition at Breenspace gallery, Gill showed Paper Boats (2009), a beguiling tabletop installation created from pages of the 1968 Encyclopedia Brittanica, and “My Own Private Angkor” (2007– ), a suite of beautiful photographs taken in Port Dickson of everyday cast-offs such as sheets of tinted perspex bestowed, through somber lighting, with a yantra-like sacredness.
While clearly enjoying an often memory-based relationship to found objects, Gill also sees them as subject to the instrumental elements—maps, alphabets, symbols—that classify and order the world’s infinite flux. The very act of archiving and collecting is thus up for grabs as a system of ordering knowledge; in several of her photographic series at the MCA, this idea manifests itself as the question, what constitutes a group, a nation? A small town at the turn of the century (2001) is a photo archive shot in Port Dickson showing townsfolk at their daily activities—playing golf, taking tea at home, tapping rubber, fishing—but with their heads obscured by masks made of tropical fruits. While presenting what looks like an “objective survey,” these are staged installations that disrupt the coherence of any narrative. Why are their identities erased? Is it meant to be a botanical survey or an ethnological one? Colonial or postcolonial? Which “turn of the century” is she addressing?
In one vitrine entitled Tampa Postmark (2001), Gill displays a rubber stamp of the Tampa, the Norwegian ship that in August 2001 picked up Afghan refugees from a distressed fishing vessel that was refused entry into Australian waters. Alongside is Grassy Weeds (1997), a list of the Latin names of grassy weeds—and what are weeds but plants out of place? More than just a quarrel between word and object, Forest (1998), her large-scale black-and-white photographic documentation of transitory installations of texts torn, shredded and planted among trees and bushes, makes us ponder how the English language, in books like Lord Jim or the Ramayana, encoded, exploited, explored and exposed the worlds it absorbed.
Simryn Gill’s vision is truly ramifying and entangling. Her installations of natural and human-made discards and remnants reveal a playful, cross-pollinating approach to materials. Plant-like propagation is a key metaphor for Gill, born in Singapore and educated in India and England. Sensitive to her natural environment, she locates a sense of self within these diverse human relations to the physical world. But it is Gill’s gift of using her eyes as an organ of tactility that charges her work, putting her in touch with her themes, filling up the space between hermetically sealed categories. In the end, her art functions more like a verb than a noun, and even this magazine you are reading can be turned into paper boats, text on palm combs, or so many centimeters of recycled pulp.