Image Credit: My Own Private Anchor, 2008
Simryn Gill is a Singaporian-born artist who works with a multitude of mediums. Her work embodies the theme of transformation, whether that be in the subject matter or the process in which she represents it. She demonstrates a particular interest in the morphing of nature and human subjects, with significance found in the location of her work. I was introduced to Gill by an announcement from the Tate Modern, where her photographic series titled Channel 2014 will be displayed alongside other artists, including Sebastião Salgado, Chris Killip, and Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad, as part of a collection early next year.
This series comprises a set of twenty-nine photographs all taken on the coast of Port Dickson, Gill’s Malaysian birthplace. The common subject of the photographs is litter; rags and ribbons of plastic that have been discarded by the sea and snagged on branches and foliage “like clothes on a washing line”. The litter is presented almost beautifully among leaves and moss in a thriving coastal habitat, making the collection uncomfortably dichotomic in tone. Most of the waste is colourful, giving a contrasting vibrancy with their surroundings, whilst nine of the works are black and white gelatin silver prints.
This is only an example of several series Gill has produced that are directly inspired by Port Dickson, which she has been creatively recording since 1993. The theme of discarded litter invokes themes of shipping and globalisation, asking the viewer questions about the power dynamics between their relationship and with the environment.
My favourite series by Gill is A Small Town at the Turn of the Century, which as the name suggests, was formulated between 1999 and 2000. Again photographic and taken in Port Dickson, the series consists of forty square-format c-type photographs that display people engaging in various activities in various settings, whose heads are masked by different tropical fruits.
There's a woman ankle-deep in sea foam with berries for a head, an individual wearing yellow and situated in a fold-out chair with a cruise ship in the background. A man sitting in front of an ornate fireplace, a seven-person group congregating on steps, two men on a golf course, a couple behind a kitchen countertop, someone wearing sandals in a parking lot, and a woman leaning against her house, to outline only a few. Uniting the subjects of these beautiful photographs is their separation from their surroundings. In every instance the people face the camera, and although photographed within their environments, the replacement of expressions with fruits barrs the subjects from truly viewing, experiencing, or engaging with them.
Gill’s replacement of her subjects’ heads with tropical vegetation native to Port Dickson references cultural stereotypes, whilst stretching the convention of portrait photography towards the absurd and borderline surreal. According to the Tate website, the fruit could “playfully allude to traditional memento mori paintings”, where both the lifespan of the fruit as well as the subjects they conceal are finite. We can see that combining the natural with the human is a recurring theme of Gill’s work, and some of the pieces from A Small Town at the Turn of the Century directly invoke an earlier series of hers titled Out of my Hair from 1995, which features a woman with banana skins for hair.
At the same time, direct parallels may be drawn between A Small Town at the Turn of the Century and Gill’s 1999 series Vegetation, which features a series of large monochrome prints that show human figures immersed in highly textural and exhaustive landscapes. The curator of the The* Art Gallery of NSW’* exhibition, Sharmini Pereira, comments that “her self-portrait dominates but only as a stream of disguises involving plants in various geographic locations; tumbleweed and aloe in Texas, mangrove and black boy in Australia, and bird's nest fern in Singapore. The images bear an uncanny resemblance to a sequence of B-movie stills, where vengeful alien-plant-people threaten to overrun the planet.” And this is true, unlike her later series; the human subjects are less distinguishable from their surroundings and thus they take a more formidable and eerie tone.
Simryn Gill’s work is matter-of-fact, and she’s unafraid to ask questions that relate to identity, and in regard to A Small Town at the Turn of the Century, postcolonialism. With her experimental portrait photography that masks her subjects’ faces, she demonstrates how identities can be concealed and new ones constructed over them through visual altercation and their situational environment. By doing so, Gill addresses the ease at which appearances can be controlled and manipulated, and entertains the possibility of multidimensional and interchangeable identities.