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