Sim­ryn Gill is to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at this year’s Venice Bi­en­nale. Kitty Hauser finds the artist has plans to lift the roof — lit­er­ally

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

IT’S hard to tell, en­ter­ing Sim­ryn Gill’s house in Mar­rickville, in Syd­ney’s in­ner west, where work­shop ends and home be­gins. We sit down at a kitchen ta­ble that seems also to be desk and work­bench. I get the feel­ing this is the engine room for a much big­ger op­er­a­tion.

My cor­re­spon­dence with the Aus­tralia Coun­cil for the Arts has led me to ex­pect Gill may be cagey about her plans for the Aus­tralian pav­il­ion at the Venice Bi­en­nale, which opens on June 1. But she seems re­laxed, con­sid­er­ing it’s just a cou­ple of days be­fore she leaves for the Bi­en­nale — per­haps the world’s most pres­ti­gious ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary art — and she is gen­er­ous with her time.

Born in Sin­ga­pore of In­dian de­scent, Gill grew up mainly in Port Dick­son, Malaysia, but moved to Aus­tralia in the 1980s. Her bi­og­ra­phy in­evitably pre­cedes ev­ery dis­cus­sion of her work. Is she bored with peo­ple ask­ing her about her back­ground? ‘‘ Yes, and I’ve ar­gued against it for­ever,’’ she says. One of her pho­to­graphs is to be in­cluded in the forth­com­ing land­mark show of Aus­tralian art at the Royal Acad­emy in Lon­don, and she has sug­gested that if she is de­scribed racially in her bi­og­ra­phy, ev­ery other artist should be too, be they of Welsh, Scot­tish or Tiwi Is­lander ex­trac­tion.

Gill’s work, how­ever, is in­eluctably in­formed by her life story and by her re­la­tion­ship to the coun­try she finds her­self al­most accidentally liv­ing in. Be­ing ‘‘ out of place’’ has made her sen­si­tive to lo­cal dif­fer­ences and at­tuned to the metaphors (and re­al­i­ties) of trans­plan­ta­tion of plants, ob­jects and ideas. Mak­ing art was a way, among other things, of mak­ing sense of her own trans­plan­ta­tion. So, find­ing her­self liv­ing in Sin­ga­pore with her hus­band and small chil­dren for a time in the 90s, Gill tore strips out of old books — nov­els, a book on tod­dler tam­ing — and hung them from trees in the fam­ily’s gar­den. It was a sort of un­nat­u­ral graft­ing, like her own.

Gill first moved to Ade­laide with her hus­band, a Chi­nese-Malaysian an­thro­pol­o­gist, in the 80s. She left art school af­ter a cou­ple of semesters when she be­came preg­nant with their first child but, in a happy re­ver­sal of the usual sce­nario, mother­hood was to pre­cip­i­tate her ca­reer as an artist. She loved be­ing a mother, she says, ‘‘ but there’s this sort of panic that sits at the bot­tom of the chest as well for me; it was very, very fo­cus­ing’’. She also dis­cov­ered she loved ‘‘ that al­most point­less prob­lem-solv­ing that art de­mands’’. This sort of thing is a hall­mark of much of Gill’s work. Dis­cov­er­ing how to at­tach four small rub­ber wheels to var­i­ous species of seed pod, for in­stance, as she did with Self-Seeds (1998), or how to make a Na­tive Amer­i­can head­dress out of chill­ies ( Red Hot, 1992).

Gill’s ac­count of how Red Hot came about il­lus­trates nicely the con­flu­ence in her early work of do­mes­tic­ity and ma­te­rial in­ge­nu­ity.

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