Arresting travel photos feature in Simryn Gill's solo show

Dalam (2001), which is Malay for inside, comprises 260 photographs of living rooms taken across West Malaysia over three months. -- PHOTO: NTU CCA SINGAPORE
Dalam (2001), which is Malay for inside, comprises 260 photographs of living rooms taken across West Malaysia over three months. -- PHOTO: NTU CCA SINGAPORE

Artist Simryn Gill's solo exhibition at Gillman Barracks features more than 1,000 photographs shot over 15 years

It is hard to look away from Simryn Gill's arresting series of photographs. As great images should do, these compel you to look past the frame and picture what lies beyond.

One, in particular, titled Dalam, which is Malay for inside, is shorn of human presence. Yet it draws you in so deeply, you lose all sense of space and time while viewing the multi-disciplinary artist's first major solo exhibition in South-east Asia.

Titled Hugging The Shore, the exhibition references American poet, novelist and literary critic John Updike's acclaimed 1983 collection of essays and reviews. In it, he writes: "Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea."

Gill's large body of work is reflected in this solo, which brings together more than 1,000 of her photographs shot over 15 years.

One series, titled May 2006, comprises 800 images of her neighbourhood in Sydney. It traces a one-month journey on foot. "Understanding places" is how she terms simple acts such as walking and talking.

Yet another, Standing Still, features 116 photographs of deserted Malaysian buildings. Construction work on many of these started before the 1997 Asian financial crisis and as the crisis unfolded, many buildings were left abandoned and incomplete. Beyond the obvious abandonment, this work, in some ways, reflect modern ruins in an urban and rapidly changing landscape.

On one wall is a new work titled Like Leaves (Syzygium Grandis, 2015), which uses leaves from the particular species of trees popularly known as the Sea Apple Tree. It is found in several coastal areas of South-east Asia and incorporating it into this work through an evocative presentation not only reflects on the very materials that help create art, but also reflects on the lifespan of a particular work.

"Nothing is forever," says Gill, 56. "The leaves are ephemeral, they are temporal. Over the course of this exhibition, they will gradually perish."

She jokingly calls herself "a housewife artist", speaking of the many journeys she has made as a travelling spouse. Her husband, anthropologist Souchou Yao, has been based in various places including Singapore and Australia.

In 1988, she dropped out of the South Australian School of Art, where she had enrolled for a degree in art, to look after her children, who are now in their 20s. Much of her early art, she recalls, was shaped by her kitchen table where she worked while watching her children.

As a child, Singapore-born Gill, who is of Sikh ancestry, moved among Malaysia, India and Britain. Much of her travel informs her art and her way of seeing the world and reaching out to people.

Dalam (2001), for instance, was shaped by "cold calls" made during a three-month journey through Malaysia. She explains: "I decided to embark on this journey to listen to stories while, at the same time, documenting the diversity of Malaysian homes."

In one picture, you find a grand piano with a lush carpet beneath. Another presents a home where the family is clearly struggling to make ends meet - you see a lone gas stove in a space where there is no distinction between the kitchen and the living area. Gill photographs each home with almost poetic care. There are touches such as a lone painting on a wall, crumbling paint or a lush tree, recreating the lives of families who inhabit these spaces.

In a time of rapid changes in technology, she speaks of her longstanding love for shooting on film. "There is a great deal of mystery and romance in film. It is almost like getting into one of those homes and not knowing what shot I will end up with."

Her work has been celebrated internationally and is in prominent collections including those of London's Tate Modern and New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2013, she represented Australia at the 55th Venice Biennale.

But she shrugs off all of this. She is more interested in what her art does for the viewer. She refuses to be photographed, viewing her own presence with her work as an unnecessary distraction.

For her, Hugging The Shore is a kind of homecoming. "Showing my work in Singapore has always been important to me. I was born in that very cloudy time in history when so much changed," she says, referring to the period when Singapore and Malaysia were one.

She adds that there is a particular delight for her in showing her works at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore space in Gillman Barracks.

She says: "It is a beautiful, almost cathedral- like space. When I stepped in there for the first time, I did not want to spoil the emptiness. So, even the way we presented the images is like Hugging The Shore of the gallery."

deepikas@sph.com.sg