Simryn Gill

Amrita Jhaveri

In the lemon-colored twilight of a muggy, monsoon-season evening, Simryn Gill’s exhibition “Letters Home” gave rise to unsettling fancies. Mine, 2008, seemed to stir eerily. As the light danced between the work’s misshapen spheres (concocted from banana skins, mangled copper wire, electric cables, and twisted hair bands, among other scrunched-up oddments), they resembled a swirling constellation of dark suns. In the Singapore-born artist’s world, debris is laden with significance. Rampant, 1999, comprises seven black-and-white photographs, in which camphor, laurel, and bamboo plants are dressed with the garments usually worn by South Asians and Southeast Asians (i.e., lungis and sarongs). Tellingly, the images were shot in Australia, where these once Chinese plants are now firmly established. Undoubtedly, Rampant is concerned with ideas of naturalization and belonging—but the disembodied white clothes in overgrown gardens and plantations evoke ghosts making their appearance at the witching hour. We wonder if the discarded clothes appear alive because the immigrant laborers who in Australia would be most likely to have worn them are invariably doomed to restless half-lives.

“Letters Home” was Gill’s first show in India. Accompanying the occasion was a one-night private presentation, in a nineteenth-century villa surrounded by a garden, of Gill’s work from gallerist Amrita Jhaveri’s own collection. In black-and-white photos from Forest, 1996, tropical plants are festooned with shredded pages from books; one image of a bird’s-nest fern shows reams of text intertwining with the plant’s dangling aerial roots. The picture could have served as a metaphor for the ease with which Gill’s images adapt to contrasting settings. For, whereas in the installation of Forest, words, weeds, and vegetation seemed to interbreed in an orgy of excess—mimicking their lush environs—the gallery exhibition emanated an aura of tense tranquility. Minimalist architecture housed the gelatin silver prints “My Own Private Angkor,” 2008. Thirty-six photographs formed a grid on a white wall, depicting the dilapidated interiors of abandoned housing estates in Port Dickson, a small town in Malaysia. In one untitled image from the series, a rectangular pane of silver gray glass is propped against a wall, dark creepers encroaching stealthily around its contours. Here, even decay seems to patiently bide its time.

Gill’s two-part introduction to Mumbai was in keeping with her oeuvre—which skips around notions of displacement. Born in “multiracial” Singapore, Gill divides her time between Port Dickson and Sydney. The series “Caress,” 2008–, marks a homecoming of sorts, since it is the first work she has made in India, where her mother’s family originated. These are graphite rubbings of the old-fashioned typewriters used by the many typists who operate along Mumbai’s Picket Street. In these quasi portraits, the cumbersome-looking objects resemble crouching animals. They were the most heavy-handed gestures of affection in “Letters Home.” Elsewhere, when Gill rummaged through issues of identity, her touch was light and mysterious. Pearls, 2004, is a dainty necklace laid on a cream shelf. The round beads might seem to be fragments of bone or opalescent gems, but are actually created from the pages of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard. Ripping apart books can be read as an act of studied violence, perhaps an attack against the written word as a symbol of the status quo. Yet the pretty pearls don’t look destructive. Such textual mangling obfuscates Gill’s attitude to power. Is it significant that her beads remold the introverted musings of a nineteenth-century Sicilian nobleman, aware of his increasing irrelevance in a newly unified Italy? Is Gill reminding us of the universal appeal of exquisite prose, or the aristocrat’s private premonitions of catastrophe?

Zehra Jumabhoy