PRINT February 2003


“STANDING STILL” IS A SUITE OF 113 PHOTOGRAPHS MADE BY THE Singapore-born artist Simryn Gill in her travels across the Malaysian countryside over a period of two years ending last summer. Gill, who was educated in India and England and has lived and worked in Australia since 1987, revisited her former homeland in the wake of the financial crisis that shook the entire Asia Pacific region beginning in 1997, turning boom into gloom and souring Asia’s dreams of galloping globalization. Until that point, photographed Asia was dominated by the image of frenetically erupting supercities—and nowhere more memorably than Kuala Lumpur with its iconic Petronas Towers, Malaysia’s pretender to the throne of world’s tallest building and a symbolic fusion of Islamic geometries and Western high tech.

Gill’s quiet photographs excavate a quite different architectural reality. Outside Malaysia’s shiny urban centers unfolds a landscape studded with the architectural relics of the colonial era: great mansions shuttered and rusted, stained as much by the damp, invasive jungle as by the dark histories of British imperialism and Japanese wartime occupation. And alongside these architectural dinosaurs, a newer type of building decays at a similar entropic rate: The built symbols of economic confidence—shopping malls and luxury villas, suburban estates and business parks—lie like interrupted dreams, abandoned as “miracle” turned into disaster. Half-finished apartment towers and bare concrete skeletons of huge hotels whose doors never opened loom above the jungle canopy like the deserted ziggurats of some forgotten civilization. Entire developments of anachronistic Tudor-timbered residences are washed in the golden light of the perfect family afternoon that never quite arrived. Gill’s photographs encapsulate, she explains, “a place in time where, one might say, the past lies in ruins, unkempt and untended, and the future also somehow has been abandoned and has started to crumble. No way forward, no way back.”

The peculiar melancholy of dead buildings, so appealing to Romantic sensibilities across the ages, is, in Gill’s images, strangely intensified. Ruins, as a form of tantalizing fragment, sometimes consoled the Romantic mind as reminders of a past once glorious and whole and at least potentially reconstructible within an imagined and improved future. Or, conversely, they fueled Romantic depression by dramatizing the futility of future effort in the face of mightier, superhuman forces. Gill’s photographs, on the other hand, neither nostalgic nor forward-looking, sandwich two moments in time to suggest a third: a hesitant, stumbling present locked between an irretrievable past and an arrested future. Here, the future deteriorates before it even begins, while the past, with all its buried violences and repressions, is figured as ruined history, not as some recuperable golden age. Nature, in the fecund Asian jungle, slowly reclaims these buildings, thus reversing time by converting contemporary endeavour into instant relic. The ruin, with all its suggestions of the transience of civilizations, in Gill’s photographs speaks allegorically of the failed promises of global capitalism as it marches inexorably onward across the Muslim world.

Kate Bush