Views from the Islands
OVA/Ikon Gallery - Birmingham - 1999
The fiction of the distant tropical shore has become central to the romantic (western) imagination. The island is a site and point that allows us to review that which we have left behind, and which demands that we configure, as if from new, that which surrounds us. All things become fresh and strange to our gaze and our environment is both alien threat and novel pleasure.
I saw large plants of aloes, but did not then understand them..." Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe.
The work of Simryn Gill has an effect not dissimilar to this exotic situation; our understandings of the everyday are made fluid and contingent. These disjuctions are extended and convoluted by the author of the works being a Malaysian Indian woman, resident in Australia. A multitude of locations, relocations and superimpositions are generated, in which the histories and sites that have determined our understandings become a component and protean part in our readings of the work.
Robinson Crusoe is perhaps the iconic English language text for ideas and fictions about the desert island in the Northern European (colonial) narratives. In the story, the narrators presence on the island is the direct result of a trading and slaving expedition which he had embarked on:"[I told them] how easy it was to purchase upon the coast, for trifles, such as beads, toys knives, scissors, hatchets, bits of glass and the like, not only gold dust, Guinea grains, elephant's teeth, but Negroes for the service of the Brazils, in great numbers." Ibid. Immediately the narrative and nature of our castaway -and ourselves - takes on a more complex and qualified character. The directives of trade, colonialism and capital have determined Crusoes presence on the island, in this puzzling natural world. His translation serves to reverse his original conceptualisations and understandings of use and utility, understandings which were the engine, so to speak, of the voyage as originally conceived. No longer, we must presume, in his island situation, are gold-dust guinea grains, etcetera of value. 'Trinkets' such as knives, scissors, hatchets, and even bits of glass would be of far greater worth.
Simryn Gills work 'Models of Virtue' consisted of objects arranged in a glass vitrine located in the Pacific Island Room of the Museum of South Australia. The objects were drawn both from the ethnographic collection surrounding the vitrine and from the everyday environment. They included a glass electrical insulator, a banana skin, a stone tool, an arrowhead, a coconut, and Tupperwear. Simulacra of each object were then cast and recast in materials directly related to the 'indigenous' material of another: an arrowhead in glass, in soap (ie coconut oil), in plastic, and so forth. An object was literally re-materialised in the matter of another one. (Or alternatively, perhaps a things' matter was re-formed). At the heart of the transformations lies the question: where does the nature, identity use, and definition of each object actually lie? Where (and how) do we locate their 'essential' qualities? And indeed are there any? These questions in turn illuminated the cases of objects that constituted the collections surrounding the work. Here 'everyday' objects had been translated and transformed: from being the battery of tools with specific use and function for people to a unitary 'collection' defined by (and in turn helping to define) another culture. The objects are shifted from utility to significance: that is to say from a register of use - be that religious or cultural - to an 'other' register of reading and meaning that generates - and is generated by - the context in which they are viewed. A register that is alien to the cultures in which the objects were made.
Acts of 'removal' operate variously in other works by the artist. In Models of Virtue the glass case denied us the chance to handle objects which because of their small scale, their intimacy, their role as 'utilitarian' objects, and the way they had been made, cried out to be touched. In other works, there is always something that makes us tentative, and which, like the glass, makes us hold back.
Objects in Simryn Gill's work always reflect some intensity of process, are the focus of a multitude of small operations and changes. For instance the large American Indian head-dress made out of dried red chillies (Red Hot): where the chillies had not only been combined, stitched and glued into this complex form, but had been previously raised and tended from seed in the artist's back garden. Alternatively the intensity and layering of process may lie in the presentation and arrangement of objects that constitute a single work. In an early piece, Silver, a vast number of spoons were carefully placed in a large and dizzying spiral, which, one was immediately aware, must have required both time and effort to do. Other times a work uses a combination of these approaches. In Pooja/Loot every day objects: small plastic toys, shaving brushes, etcetera, were placed in beautiful and complex ogees cut into the bodies of closed books. In another, Biodata, fragile mango skins were carefully and delicately sewn into a rug.
Despite being handmade nothing is made to be touched by hands. Gill's work makes the viewer terribly aware of its fragility, its empherality, its delicacy. The spoons can be displaced, the chillies will decay, the mango skins rot. What we see in front of us is a momentary stasis - a moment delayed or frozen - that is precariously balanced at a moment of shift and change, which places us but a moment away from an irrevocable loss. This awareness denies our touch and holds us back as effectively as any glass barrier around a vitrine. This apprehension of the work as a moment in a narrative of change, construction and arrangement, and our concomitant awareness of the fragility of the structures, accounts for much of the work's play, it's beauty and its melancholy. The works are seemingly haunted by their own contingency, and so, in turn, by the ghosts of lost or occluded orders.
The artisinal, rather than being the central way of making things, (the position it has historically occupied) is becoming a means of production in opposition to, and increasingly replaced by, the mechanical. It is one displaced, almost erased, by the development of capitalism. In this context, the intensely worked and hand-made becomes either an object of fetishised value : to be found expensively priced in craft shops and galleries everywhere, and/or representative of redundant exotic 'backwards' societies and technologies. It is also a means of production often located in the feminine realm. These placements in turn suggest other orderings of the Capitalistic and the Colonial, wherein the 'tropics' and the 'non western' are constituted (and dismissed) as locations of the 'natural' and of ' (raw) material' of the commodity hierarchy ; be these Crusoe's 'gold dust, guinea grains, elephants teeth' - or souces of cheap or unpaid labour - 'Negroes for the service of the Brazils'. Positionings which are made more stark in contemporary narratives of 'globalisation'.
Simryn Gills works simultaniously conjours ghosts more specific, more subjective, more attached to each individual thing - similar to those that would be engendered for Crusoe, on the island, were he able to gaze upon the 'trinkets' that he had so summarily dismissed (the 'beads, toys, knives scissors, hatchets, bits of glass and the like') which in their new situation would generate memories of particular locations, interactions and narratives made distant by the sea. A tiffin tin (Heart of the Matter) for one viewer may be a comforting reminder of remembered meals in a childhood past, to another, it is an object of obscure function and exotic fascination. A plant or seed (Self Seeds) may recall a garden in which we played, or may represent lands and environments that cannot be understood.
Plants, materials and seeds have shaped the formations of quotidian history. Red Hot part-referenced Columbus's chance discovery of America whilst he was in search of a passage to India for the spice trade. From this starting point the complex confusions and exchanges that shape histories are suggested: from the American peoples being known in Europe as 'Indians' to the peoples of India embracing the chilli pepper as a central part of their cooking. In Gills work the 'raw' - the natural - is no longer merely that which is waiting to be transformed, but becomes transformative and which has its own ontologies. In Forest, pages of printed books have been carefully torn into their constituent lines, and these lines painstakingly stuck one to the other to form large vegetal strands. These are then placed back in nature, ('back' both in the sense that they are returned to the wood that constitutes the pages of the book, and into the context that their new forms suggest) and are photographed. The texts are, as Marion Pastor Roces says in her essay 'Slow Release' (A&T/56 1997) "receding into vegetable matter, they deteriorate further, proceeding to decay". Significantly, this process is frozen, memorialised in a photograph.
An abundant nature has often been read as inimical to culture. This can be articulated in Ballardian fantasies of natural excess and process destroying or eroding the cities, returning and overtaking them, where only the stump of a skyscraper is left emerging from jungle vines, and the empty swimming pool is surrounded by exotic flowers. In Victorian constructions of history and cultural development, warmth and lushness were seen as sapping, both physically and morally. The presumed moral rigour and general industry of the Northern European races was seen as a result of an environment that was not fecund, which did not support every whim, but against which one had to work and organise: a struggle that forged character. This was contrasted to the presumed luxuriousness of the Mediterranean peoples - lotus eaters - who could languidly reach out to pluck a plum or pear, leading them to be victims of their appetites. Such rhetorics of 'crude biologism and bad sociology' (Yao Souchou 'Xiao Ye' Draft Paper 1998) re-emerge in The Malay Dilemma (1970) by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. Here too is articulated an opposition between a 'north' which is hard in it's natural provision, and therefore good, and a 'south' which is easy and therefore bad for the cultural and moral development of its peoples. Mahathir says "no great exertion of ingenuity was required to obtain food. There was plenty of it for every one throughout the year. Hunger and starvation, a common feature in countries like China, were unknown in Malaya. Under these conditions everybody survived. Even the weakest and least diligent were able to live in comparative comfort, to marry and procreate. The observation that only the fittest would survive did not apply (to Malays), for the abundance of food supported the existence of even the weakest (1970:21)" (quoted Yao Souchou Ibid). Here, culture is denied, subsumed, made weak, through the operations of a fecund nature.
These resonances and echoes of the construction and fantasies of the 'natural' are given specific and complex spin in Gill's approaches and work, through their articulation and exploration within the contexts and layered understanding of the 'colonial' and its histories and rhetorics. These are rhetorics which tend to place the (presumed 'other') cultural within the realms of the 'natural' anyway - be they utopian - Rousseau's noble savage, or dystopian - and which come to generally inflect expressions and understandings: no matter the location and time of their generation, as Doctor Mahathir's text serves to underline.
The trope of the alien 'tropical island' has become part of science fiction: 'Swiss Family Robinson' becomes'Lost In Space'. In many classic science fictions, the a planet is some hot Venusian tropical swamp, where plants are animals, animals plants, an environment where the stranded voyager(s) struggle to maintain their definition and culture against alien and incomprehensible systems. In these fictions we can detect a subterranean fear of miscegenation between the 'natural' and the 'cultural', and in particular between the vegetable and the mammal (where the mammal can be seen as signifying the living, inviduated, and sentient, and the vegetable, the living but non-individuated, not quite sentient). Such dark imaginings are playfully suggested in Gills' work Self Seeds (1998), consisting of hundreds of tropical seeds, each carefully mounted on its own set of wheels. The words 'seed' and 'pod' (be it 'star seed', pod-shaped or 'the pod people') holds an uncanny fascination within science fiction, where the 'seed' is seen as an expression of a blind and unstoppable group volition: from 'The Day of The Triffids' to 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. Obviously much of this can be seen as symbolic of Cold War anxieties, where the heroic warm blooded individualism of the (capitalist) West is attacked and overwhelmed by the agency of an 'other' (Communism). Like the pods in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' which first consume people then replicates them as vegetable drones, this agency is not concerned with the individual but with the group or species. In turn Communism represented itself as inevitable, with the 'laws' of history functioning as those of nature. Similarly, under Darwinian determinism, colonial expansion was seen as being 'natural' an inevitable outcome of inviolate laws of nature. Currently, the 'market' is rhetoricised as an overarching, 'natural force'. The positioning of such systems within the 'natural' serves to remove them from the reach of the 'ethical' or 'moral'- cultural considerations deemed artificial in an 'essential' natural world.
Although such chthonic histories and imaginings are referenced and suggested in Simryn Gills work, it is crucial to remember that 'the island', in all its manifestations is also the place of possibility, of construction, of the idyll. When Gonzalo and Sebastian in The Tempest are first walking on what they imagine to be a deserted shore, they imagine how they might live here. Gonzalo says "the commonwealth I would by contraries / execute all things; for no kind of traffic / would I admit; no name of magistrate; /letters would not be known; riches, poverty, / And use of service, none; contract, succession, / Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;". The shifting of people, and of materials and objects from their various matrixes allows them, and that which they represent, to be reformed, recombined and reinvented. Such movements encourage and require inventions that makes light the weight and determinisms of history.
In the work Out of my Hair , a brown skinned woman is wearing yellow banana skins on her head. The work, which is a photograph, is poignant, complex, playful, slightly bonkers. The banana skins form a yellow wig, so that her dark hair may be seen as blonde. Over time, of course the banana skins will turn brown and then black, so the project is ultimately doomed. The image talks not only of the absurdity of the act, but by implication indicates the absurdity of the 'problem' or desire which this act is meant to 'solve'. The image suggests histories of representation: from the exoticisms of the banana-skirted Josephine Baker, to the use of flowers and fruits for decoration, to the model of the blonde as some sort of ideal. But it is not an image that indicts: the photograph has frozen this moment of reinvention not only as ridiculous, but as triumphant.
Simryn Gill's work is not only analytic and diagnostic of histories, contexts and pasts, but it is generative of new narratives and usages. It is, I think, celebratory. The fragility of much of the work not only speaks of past orders of use and meaning, but also plays with the way that meanings are not fixed. The collecting of objects and elements - a sophisticated beachcombing - and their mutable combination and rearticulation suggests that we are not only subject of narratives, but that we are the makers of narratives too. A wave of sea-worn glass, Washed Up, allows fragmentary words to be recombined into new texts. It is usual, and easy, to see the fragmentary as somehow tragic, that it represents the partial remains of something once grand and unitary, that the seen fragment is the iceberg tip of loss. Certainly this is the way that it is configured in the romantic imagination -as evoked by T.S. Eliots's 'these fragments I shore up against my ruin'. However, the fragment occasions not only loss but also retrieval through the massive and poignant act of imagining which lets the supposed past come back into our view. This act of reclamation, of fiction, inturn liberates the fragment, constituting it as an autonomous element in new acts of combination and invention.
Throughout Simryn Gill's work, her play and strategy negates binary positionings, it refuses to be easily located. Instead her productions constantly and mischievously suggest situations, possibilities, and contexts where - as Prospero says at the end of The Tempest with the island evaporating behind him - "all that is solid melts into air".