GILL, Simryn; Pooja/Loot
Born in Singapore in 1959, Simryn Gill grew up in Port Dickson, Malaysia, travelling to Jaipur, India to complete high school and then Britain for further study. Gill's personal history is complex, one of shuttling between different geographies, cultures and languages. This has influenced her art practice, which largely focuses on questions about the relationship between place and identity in contemporary global culture. Gill explores who we are, and what things or processes locate us in a particular place. She draws on a rich mix of cultural histories and forms from art, literature, science and popular culture, to point out the 'many confusions, pleasures and contradictions of locating oneself' in a particular place and time.(1)
The installation Pooja/Loot is an early work constructed from found objects and books Gill collected while trawling through thrift shops in Adelaide. In the late 1980s, when Gill arrived in Australia, Adelaide was a culturally diverse city where ethnic minorities made up 20 per cent of the population, adding to the fusion of fast food, markets, discount stores and thrift shops. Many of the objects in Pooja/Loot appear to be from the 1950s and 1960s, probably collected as travel souvenirs or cheap decorative items for the home. Gill's collection of objects in Pooja/Loot can be seen as a portrait of a city and represent her effort of making familiar a new or unknown place.
The complexities involved in this process are played out both through the physical construction of the work and its title. The installation Pooja/Loot consists of 58 novel sized, early twentieth-century books which have been carved to create various shrine shaped pockets or crevices. The work 'is book ended by two open pages from a nineteenth century dictionary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases'.(2) The words forming the title of the work appear on these pages, 'pooja' and 'loot'. These words translate from Hindi to mean 'worship' and 'plunder', thus unravelling the potentially fraught histories of the books/objects and their collection. Are the books transformed into shrines to be worshiped as objects in their own right, as mysterious bearers of knowledge? Or, have they actually been plundered to form the frame for viewing and understanding the unfamiliar?
The use of Hindi words and references to places of Indian worship also points to Gill's personal history as part of a diaspora. Gill interweaves venerated architectural sites and symbols of India's religions with the detritus of consumerist culture to suggest a broader exploration of culture and identity. Small kitsch objects, previously discarded and unwanted, are enshrined as venerated beings. Gill playfully subverts the authority given to books as the holders of knowledge by drawing attention to the trivia of everyday life that exists within their covers. It is a strange reversal of fates for both the books and the elevated objects, which reminds us that a global enthusiasm for everyday kitsch in the form of popular films, music and consumerist items is as much a part of contemporary culture and worship as acclaimed architectural sites and myths. Within the context of a global culture this work brings to light the complexities and pluralities of contemporary life.
Simryn Gill has emerged as one of a generation of diasporic artists who are more interested in questions than answers. In Pooja/Loot there is a rift between the meanings of the books and the objects they hold. Curator Wayne Tunnicliffe has said: 'as with Gill's other text works, "Pooja/Loot" is premised on a deliberate misunderstanding of the function of books and it quite literally cannot be "read" for (a singular) meaning'.(3) Pooja/Loot offers a variety of readings and points of departure: colonization and trade, local and global, the hand-made and the ready-made, origin and authenticity, and ethnicity and race are investigated.
1. Raffel, Suhanya. 'Suhanya Raffel in conversation with Simryn Gill' in Simryn Gill [exhibition catalogue], Organisation for Visual Arts, London, 1999, p.7.
2. Tunnicliffe, Wayne. 'Self selection', in Simryn Gill: Selected Works [exhibition catalogue], Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2002, p.7.
3. Simryn Gill: Selected Works, p.7.