December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

The artist in space: Simryn Gill’s ‘Clearing’

By Quentin Sprague
A new commission for AGNSW’s Sydney Modern showcases the artist’s dedication to bearing witness

The first point that Simryn Gill wants to make is that an artist’s biography should not be trusted, at least not as a means through which to understand their work. Yes, an artist’s life provides the frame within which their character and sensibility finds form, but good art is always far more than the simple sum of these parts. She’d said as much on our very first phone call and now, some two weeks later, as we settle around her simple studio table at her home in Sydney’s Marrickville, she reiterates her position with a smile. “I’ve got a great story,” she says. “As long as you don’t write it down.”

She’s teasing, of course. But she’s also not. Gill’s practice is full of biographical breadcrumbs that together trace her history from Singapore, where she was born in 1959 – the first child of Indian parents – to the Malaysian coastal town of Port Dickson, where she grew up in her paternal grandfather’s quietly grand house, and on to Australia, where she has lived in both Adelaide and Sydney. All the while she has divided her time between Port Dickson and Australia, and both places shape her work. To look at Gill’s practice in any depth is to gain a granular feel for what fuels her art – her motivations, the unique quality of her eye, the thinking that has resulted from a life forged between the relative poles of “here” and “there” – but she wants me to know that none of this equates to biography, at least not in conventional terms.

“As an artist you get asked this question: What are you doing? What is your work about? And it’s a really perplexing one, because the work is actually about figuring out being. If I knew why I was doing it, I wouldn’t do it.” She explains that she works with a combination of ground and material. “You can’t separate the two. The biography is the necessary ground, and I work from the ground and with the ground.” From there she seeks something layered, and, although her own story sometimes seeps in at the edges, what fascinates her are far more abstract ideas: repetition, time, return. She aims for a certain density in what she does. Pinned to the otherwise blank wall behind her are a number of relief prints taken from the inked body of a dead ibis – a tiny part of a cascading sequence of works (photographs, prints, photograms and an artist book) that comprise her recent major commission, titled Clearing, for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The ibis’s individual feathers have been picked up by the print with exquisite clarity. It’s like seeing a bird anew. Perhaps Gill notices my attention settling there, because she adds, “I work from closeness as well; I work from detail.”

There’s something faintly daunting about writing on Gill’s practice. It’s not just her resistance to a biographical frame, it’s also the dizzying variety of her work. Since she began exhibiting in the 1990s, she has exercised a pronounced talent for shapeshifting. She goes where each work wants her to go, adapting her approach as needed. Everything is linked, but a casual viewer could be forgiven for asking: Just what kind of artist is she, exactly?

Although she has consistently used photography, to call her a photographer misses much of what she does. As the ibis attests, a good deal of her output in recent years could be loosely characterised as printmaking, but only in the most expanded sense of the term. She’s just as likely to create meticulous collages from the pages of antique books or make small sculptures. One recent series saw her cast the cavities of fruits and vegetables in plaster of Paris. At times she has simply presented her viewers with the prismatic results of a life spent beachcombing the mangrove-fringed edge of her childhood home. During our time together she referred to herself as both a shell-picker and a gleaner – the latter term popularised by the late French documentarian, Agnès Varda, who used it describe a particular kind of intuitive gathering, not only of objects but of the thoughts and feelings they might spark. For Gill’s 2013 exhibition Here art grows on trees, which she presented as Australia’s representative at the 55th Venice Biennale, all these threads drew together, but only in service of a greater whole. She had the entire central roof section of the then soon-to-be-replaced Australian pavilion removed, so that the works within – a series of unframed photographs, a scatter of sculptural parts, a long paper collage, also unframed – were exposed to the elements. Sure, it was an exhibition of Gill’s work – and one about as high profile on the international stage as it gets – but the driving heart of it lay, for her, in making it vulnerable to what would otherwise be understood as potentially catastrophic damage: drizzling rain, humidity, pollution, falling leaves, dust and, eventually, creeping mould. Don’t think Gill isn’t a perfectionist, though: she is, famously so. When I ask about it, she couches her Venice exhibition in terms of an offering. That’s why the works were so meticulously presented; why she insisted that her preferred team of installers was flown in; why she engaged the expertise of Venetian plasterers to prepare the walls before soaking the paper-like surface in a wash of velvet black India ink.

“So much needed to go into it to make it just right, so that it was… what’s the word I’m looking for? A sufficient offering to the gods,” she says. “If that’s your primary audience, it has to be perfect.”

As a child, Gill was drawn to liminal spaces, in the way that children often are – spaces that suggest an elsewhere or provide an imaginative link to another world.

Beyond the mangroves in Port Dickson lies the Strait of Malacca, and although her childhood home was itself only a minor port, the horizon was traced by a constant stream of ships. The passage is a so-called global chokepoint, an overcrowded link between the Pacific and Indian oceans: today, some 90,000 vessels pass through each year. With their father, Gill and her siblings would look out through binoculars and read the names painted on each hull, trying to identify where each was from. Both her father and grandfather were keen amateur photographers, and the family subscribed to magazines such as Life, National Geographic, Newsweek and Time, each of which made the most of the power of the photographic image. The young Gill would pore over them. She did the same with the many books in her grandfather’s library. Although she cautions me against making too direct a link, she concedes that “a lot of my eye, or my visual training, or my thinking, came from that library – just my grandfather’s books, or the magazines that came through”.

In step, her lifelong habit of beachcombing took hold. She became so familiar with the nuances of the intertidal zone that when a large power station was constructed next door in the early 1970s she was able to identify resulting changes in the marine ecosystem: a tiny shift in water temperature or in the numbers of certain shells. More recently, she has been approached by an ecologist who lives in the area. “He often brings things to me,” she says. “He asks, ‘Tell me, did you see these as a child? When did you start seeing them? Do you think the number of them have shifted?’” They go for walks and discuss what’s changed. Again, it’s the same idea: looking closely, working with fine detail. But that’s not to suggest it wasn’t intuitive. “It’s just a thing I did – it wasn’t scientific. I didn’t want to control it.”

Gill moved to Adelaide in 1987 with her husband, Yao Souchou, a Malaysian-Chinese social anthropologist and writer who had previously studied there. She found the city guarded compared to Malaysia, where life spilled into the streets; in Adelaide it appeared to happen behind closed doors. The two already had a young son, and in Adelaide a daughter followed. Gill enrolled briefly in art school, but it wasn’t for her: it was “too slow, my mind was already galloping”. Even so, it left her with little doubt she had found her vocation. She discovered a selection of artists’ books in the library, including a number by Ed Ruscha, the American Pop artist acclaimed for slim volumes of mundane-yet-soulful serial photographs of his Los Angeles surrounds: apartment blocks, swimming pools, gas stations. This is art? Gill wondered. But I’ve been thinking like this my whole life.

Ruscha’s influence, although not often noted, echoes quietly in Gill’s practice. A number of her photographic series recall not only the coolness of his eye, but his capacity to allow his photographic subject to speak for itself, to emanate character no matter how nondescript. In the early 2000s, the power station next to her childhood home underwent a transition from oil to gas. By then it had towered for three decades over the family garden, which had been planted by her mother and grandmother with the mangoes, neem trees, jacarandas, tamarinds and gulmohars that characterised the regions they had grown up in in India. Gill speaks of the station, ruefully, as a “strange blessing”. Since her childhood, much of Port Dickson’s beachfront has been sold off to developers, and the mangroves and tidal zone she loves have been filled and built over. But her childhood home, which is now owned by her brother, is so close to the power station that it’s within a so-called security zone: the beachfront remains, and with it one of her most valued sites – it often features in her work.

During the station’s transition, Gill talked her way inside and photographed her way through its sprawling control rooms and corridors, framing them as dispassionately formal panoramas. She took the same approach to her family home and exhibited the resulting series in 2004 at Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo. She shows me the small catalogue from the exhibition: each double spread comprised of a domestic image and its industrial counterpart; the familiar and the unfamiliar, the soft and the hard. It’s tempting to read the series as an indictment of industrialisation, and although that may ring true, it’s also simply about proximity. The transition to gas reduced the immediate air pollution, but it also made the turbines considerably larger. “Imagine living in that electrical flux,” Gill says. Look at her photos and you can.

Part of Gill’s talent lies in her resistance to categorisation. She has always been careful to avoid being pigeonholed as “a little banner for this version of being in the world, or that”. She realised early on that in the Australian art world in particular – which in the 1990s was undergoing a period of self-interrogation in light of its immediate regional and cultural context – she could be “very boxable”. Her work can appear to fit easily within defining artworld preoccupations, but on closer inspection it often directs viewers elsewhere. Put simply, she always manages to wriggle free.

For this reason, she was initially sceptical of the invitation to represent Australia at Venice. “I work well in an invisibility,” she explains. “I’m visible, but I’m also not really in the stream, as it were.” The idea of representing the nation – a place that she was, quite literally, simultaneously inside and outside of – was a confronting one, and the project left her drained. Not long afterwards she returned to Port Dickson, where she has a house not far from her childhood home. She stayed for four years. And although she was partly there for family reasons, it was a productive time: she developed various bodies of work, much of which remains unseen. In 2016 she was joined there by the Melbourne-based printmaker Trent Walter, and the two developed the relief printing process that has since underpinned much of Gill’s work, including Clearing. They started with a large collection of driftwood – unidentified planks and timbers, intriguingly shaped formwork from fishing boats – but the idea quickly grew in ambition: on a subsequent visit in 2017, Gill and Walter took a printed impression from an entire palm tree. They remain close collaborators, and when I recently spoke with Walter over Zoom he jokingly referred to Gill as “one of my best students”. Although they work on discrete projects together, she often takes an idea discovered along the way and runs with it. “Once Simryn’s got something in mind, she goes deep”, Walter said. The point where one thing ends, and another begins is often purposefully diffuse. She picks at the edges, he explained, looking for the loose thread. She makes things hers. “What makes her a great artist is that she doubts. And through that doubt she gets to the core of things, the centre.”

Clearing has been commissioned as part of a series inaugurating AGNSW’s flagship expansion, Sydney Modern, which opens to the public on December 3. As she often does, Gill started wide and circled her way inwards. As with Venice, the high-profile commission was another invitation for her to enter the stream of things, and she once again had her reservations. “You say yes even though you might not know what you’re doing,” she says. “You just have to deal with it, and trust. It’s like being a writer: you have a blank page, and you think, Do I have anything in me still? Can I find the first line, have I got a way in?

The new building, which extends across the parkland of The Domain and overlooks the harbour, has been designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA. The pavilion-like structure elegantly combines walls of rammed earth, concrete and stone with great swathes of glass, but it’s what lies underneath that will most likely awe first-time visitors. During World War Two, in the wake of the fall of Singapore in 1942, two vast concrete oil-storage tanks were constructed under The Domain to provide fuel for the naval fleet. Sydney Modern spirals a pristine white access ramp into one of them, now retro-fitted into a huge, patina-rich exhibition space. Gill had heard that a tangle of tree roots, most likely from a Moreton Bay fig, had at some point in the tank’s history broken through the walls seeking water. She requested access to the in-progress renovations so she and another long-term collaborator, Alex Robinson, could take photographs. “That was my way of saying I need to slow down and stand in the vicinity of these things,” she says. The two of them photographed the cluster of errant roots, from which she would also later take relief prints in her studio, but for the most part they ended up simply documenting the cavernous interior. The stench of fuel was still strong. Sentinel-like columns rose from the near-complete darkness at regular intervals, their bases seared white with lime residue. Thin beams of sunlight slivered in, just enough to illuminate long photographic exposures of 10 or even 15 minutes.

When a friend at the gallery alerted her that a 110-year-old Canary Island date palm had been removed to make way for the new building, she turned her attention to that. At first it was hoped the tree could be replanted, so Gill worked onsite with a team of assistants to take two graphite rubbings on paper, both more than 20 metres long, of the entire trunk and fronds. Then, just before Sydney entered the first of its COVID-19 lockdowns, she got word that the palm was condemned; it had been found to be infested by coconut weevils. She sprang into action, contacting a friend with a ute and directing him to collect as much of the tree as possible: the sections of trunk, the bundles of fronds, the seed heads. She took this to a storage unit, and then to her studio, where she worked throughout lockdown with Sydney-based printmaker Marcus Dyer-Harrison (another ongoing collaborator), to make a sequence of relief prints, using the same method she and Walter had developed in Malaysia. They took prints of the fronds in various subdued colours; they cut the trunk and took prints of the circular cross-sections; Gill took the seed fronds and worked with Sandra Barnard, her long-time photographic printer, to make photograms of them (a process in which an object is placed against photographic paper before it is exposed to light, leaving a ghostly silhouette). She and Dyer-Harrison even sawed the seed heads into pieces and printed those too. In the resulting impressions one can see the gaps and absences where the weevils made their home.

The resulting work currently occupies an entire gallery of the existing AGNSW building. One of the original graphite rubbings of the palm is unfurled like a vast scroll on a purpose-built table, while the surrounding walls each hold the various groups of prints and the sequence of photograms. The work hums with a compulsive energy that comes not only from the careful busyness of its many components, but from Gill’s apparent drive to capture something in its entirety. She knows the palm tree is just the sum of its parts, but she is also wondering how (and perhaps even if) it might be more than that.

Although we meet only a week after Clearing has opened to the public, it’s evident that Gill has moved beyond it. In her studio, she reaches for the artist’s book that she has also produced as part of the commission: a large, unbound publication printed in glorious black and white that places the project within a much wider constellation of images and thoughts. She refers to it as “a folio of associations”, a perfect description. Gill is both an avid reader and a gifted writer. Books have always been central to her practice, both as an enduring inspiration and as something she herself has made, usually to pair her series of photographs with short writings. She’s already told me that this “nexus” between image and text may soon become her “primary mode” – her recent work with the Sydney-based writer Tom Melick, with whom she edits a proudly DIY publishing imprint called Stolon Press, has become a particular focus. Now, looking through her new book, she underscores this assertion.

She chooses her words carefully, aware that the opportunity to realise a work as far-reaching as Clearing is a vanishingly rare one for Australian artists. “I’m not saying this, but you could say that my entire Art Gallery of New South Wales project, everything that’s on the walls – that’s the meal on the plate that you throw away, but which was necessary to make the book.”

She begins to leaf through it, pointing out the various images and explaining how they relate. There are the roots that found their way into the oil storage tanks, and an image of tangled hair, a tiny, folded paper boat tucked in among the strands. A sequence of three found photographs show a departing passenger ship draped in a flurry of paper streamers. An accompanying caption reads, “Look at how the bunting tethers boat to wharf, like hair to a head.” The printed ibis is in there, gracing a double-page spread (the birds often nest in palm crowns). One typically striking page juxtaposes photographs of an ancient temple overcome by tree roots and the body of a giant squid laid out in full tentacular glory. Gill pauses at a photograph from 1942 that shows the oil storage tanks under construction, and points to a palm tree in the background: the same one that provided Clearing its basis.

“How do we get to the things we need to get to?” she says, still thinking through the connection between the work on display at AGNSW and the book open on the table before us. “What are the things that we have to do to be willing to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do that: if you’d like a beautiful thing from me, I’ll give you a beautiful thing. But can I have my un-beautiful thing at the end too?’”

Back in 2013, when Gill accepted the invitation to show at Venice, she did so with what she now insists was a healthy dose of naivety. She was offered a decent-sized budget, and she found herself wondering what it would be like to photograph the many open-cut mines that mar the Australian landscape. “I just wanted to look in. Just stand at the rim and record the void.”

The relevant companies refused her access, so she did the next best thing: chartered a small plane and photographed the mines from above. Working with a production manager – a friend and ex-journalist from Malaysia called Mary Maguire – Gill eventually shot mines in Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia. She rugged up against the cold wind and literally hung out the window, snapping away. Gill recalls saying to Maguire, “Hey Mary, it’s my chance to be a pretend, wannabe National Geographic photographer, hanging out of a plane. I can pretend to be one of those boys and they’re going to pay me for it!”

The resulting images formed the series she offered up unframed to the Venetian elements. They are seductively beautiful in a way that not only belies their subject, but which renders it hard to imagine the challenge of making them. But as with much of what Gill does, including her near-forensic examination of the palm tree in Clearing, the resulting tension is not strictly the point. Nor are the environmental readings that she knew the photographs would evoke. All that is good, but it’s something else that draws her disparate-seeming work together: the drive to carve out space at the edges of things, to grant attention to what might otherwise go unseen, the simple fact of bearing witness.

The urge runs deep. Earlier, Gill had remarked upon one of the unique pleasures of being an artist. “Art lets you do things that you’ve had fantasies about since you were a child,” she said. “That’s the best thing about it. It’s like, Why are you doing that? It’s because I’m an artist. It’s such a great answer, right?”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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