For almost six months during the 2013 Venice Biennale, Simryn Gill opened the Australian Pavilion up to the weather. Removing part of the roof to let in light, rain, wind, bugs, dirt and leaves, the gallery became an echo of the atrophied buildings in her photographic series Standing Still (2000-2003). The old pavilion, designed as a temporary space by Phillip Cox in 1988, was dismantled shortly after Gill’s show and, in time for Fiona Hall’s exhibit in 2015, will be replaced with a bunker like grey block designed by Denton Corker Marshall architects. This grey block, like a hunk of iron plucked from the broad Australian earth and deposited in the fragile rifts and flows of Venice, can be connected conceptually to the centrepiece of Gill’s pavilion: a set of 8 luminous photographs of open cut mines in the Australian outback. The photographs are part of a series called Eyes and Storms, images of mining sites – including mines, waterholes and earth – all taken from the air.
The images in Eyes and Storms have a seen from the road quality, a sense of closeness and motion unusual for aerial photographs. They could be relatives of Wesley Stacey’s series, The Road (1973-1975), 280 colour photographs of Australian views as seen from Stacey’s kombi. In some of Gill’s images the edges of shapes are feathered with motion, as if the plane were flying low and not too fast. The colours – mauve, pearl, rust, egg blue, milk white, inky, liquid black and hard gold – are beautiful and various. At the centre of the series is an image of an open cut gold mine (likely the Fimiston Open Pit – known as The Super Pit – in Kalgoorlie); three hard glittering rings in a pool of dusty red.
At Utopia Gallery in Sydney, where the series was shown earlier this year, this image (Eyes and Storms 4) was placed in the corner of the room. This position, beside the intersection of the walls, emphasised its magnetic affect, the directional line of the walls drawing the eye toward the work. As in Gill’s previous photographic series, Dalam (2001), A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999-2000), and Standing Still (2000-2003), the images in Eyes and Storms work together. Viewed cumulatively, they form a taxonomy of repeated shapes, textures and colours. Printed on perspex to withstand exposure to the weather, the photographs are now marked by the Venice show, and the traces of rain and dirt give them a tactile, sticky surface. This double layer of texture – the visual texture of the photograph and the tangible texture of the object’s surface gives the images a surprisingly physical presence.
In the Biennale exhibition catalogue, Here Art Grows on Trees, Brian Massumi considers Gill’s collection of ‘naughts’, found objects in the shape of zeros that were hung on the gallery walls, some looped into rough groups and others alone.
“Little zeros: the shape of emptiness. They lie where they are found because they have come to naught, from where no one cares, discarded. They have been emptied from an anonymous passerby’s quotidian cargo. Dumped, without so much as a passing thought. As litter, the place they occupy is tenuous. They have no claim to place other than the unadorned fact that this is where they happen to be, for no good reason. This is not the same as being out of place. It is being in place without an alibi.”1
Tsai Ming Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2007) is peopled by figures rather than characters; bodies moving through a post Asian economic crisis Kuala Lumpur. The central body, played with gestural precision by Lee Kang Sheng, is a silent outsider. Left unconscious after an assault, he is adopted by a group of young men and, along with a flea-ridden mattress, installed in their makeshift rooms. The rooms have weather ravaged walls and windows without glass. One of the boys, played by non-actor Norman Atun, installs Lee on the mattress under a mosquito net and nurses him back to the world. It’s never clear if Lee’s character is mute, chooses not to speak, or simply doesn’t speak any of the languages in this multi-lingual film.
Despite his silence, or because of it, Lee’s presence is irresistible to the figures around him. He is the object of erotic fixation for Atun, who shares the mattress with him, holds him up in the toilet and carefully washes his body; the ground-floor restaurant’s somnambulant waitress with her heavy weather shuffle; and the restaurant’s jittery, desperate owner (Pearlly Chua).
With his vigorous silence, Lee brings Chua to a screeching orgasm in a dark lane behind the restaurant. Chua has a comatose son (also embodied by Lee Kang Sheng – a single body used to express the often linked but entirely different modes of stillness and silence) to whom she plays opera and employs the waitress to jerk off, even though his body, in hiatus, does not respond. The film welds the desperate hurry of desire and the suspension of high humidity so tightly that excessive motion and deep stillness come to vibrate at the same frequency.
The film’s other object of desire is a half-built shopping mall, where construction has been suspended mid-dream, an imagined palace of extravagant commerce left unrealised. The building has an atrium filled with dirty water where Lee sits fishing. Steel girders stick out of the floor slabs like crooked bones. It’s half building site, half ruin, sitting in the cityscape like a memorial to a dream, a reminder of what the city isn’t. It’s distinguished from an historical ruin by the appearance of being in its own time, although the end of a city is perhaps always, like the aborted mall, a sign of desire stopped mid-reach.
What is a bust? A loss or a pause? A regression or an intermission? A period of naught.
In Eyes and Storms, images of waterholes sit beside the images of mine holes. There is an aesthetic similarity between them – they are both round – and a material complementarity – the mine openings are hard and the waterholes soft. Beyond these formal relations, there is something essential about the appearance of water in Gill’s work. Her usual places (to my eyes anyway) are damp, wet and porous. In Malaysia, where both Gill and Tsai were born, the tropical climate structures life around wet and dry poles, humidity is high, and dampness ever-present. In Sydney, where Gill lives, damp courtyards breed mosquito clouds and water settles into sandstone after rain, seeping out for days afterward. And Eyes and Storms was made for Venice.
In “Perhaps the Flood” critic Yvette Bíró links water and holes in Tsai’s films, asserting that water is an iteration of the holes it runs through. In an analysis of The Hole (1998), a film where monsoonal rains trigger warnings about contaminated water and a hole between two apartments becomes a funnel for an unstoppable deluge, she notes, “[The] hole is invariably represented in Tsai’s films by cascading water, torrential and relentless rain, as well as the riot of running faucets and leaking pipes. Water bubbling, pelting, swirling in the background or in full view eventually inundates everything and there is nothing to block its course.” 2 Like the rain falling through the hole in The Hole, the water collected in the centre of the mall in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone has a deep, endless, presence. Everyday, Atun pulls a long plastic hose from the inside of the building to the outside in an attempt to drain the well. Water rushes out in thick streams but the water level inside never seems to go down.
Like Tsai’s mall, Gill’s Venice pavilion embraced water. A large copper bowl collected rain that fell into the gallery, and in one of the exhibition images, the plywood floor is drenched. Did the combination of wet wood and summer rain recreate the smell of Australia in Venice? Does any other place know the musty odour of a weatherboard house after rain so well?
Water also provides an apt motif for the slipperiness and fluidity of the mine images; I find the more I look at them the less sense I have of what they are communicating. In her exhibition essay for On the Shelf, curator Catherine De Zegher positions Eyes and Storms in an environmental context, writing, “some of the round open pit mines appear to be orifices on the surface of mother earth, or as Gill suggests in the work’s title, all-eye, huge gleaming and staring at ‘the perfect storm of ecological and social problems’ the world faces today.” 3 In some of the photographs the land looks scarred and unnatural (I will describe this further in a moment) but overall, I don’t get much of a sense of ecological anxiety from Gill’s images because the formal qualities of pattern, colour, shape and texture dominate the experience. Like the images of the incomplete mall in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Gill’s minehole photographs are eyesores made beautiful, and the beauty transforms the subject. There is beauty in the image, in the idea, in how we think about the thing. But what does that mean for the subject itself?
In “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag writes, “Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there,” and then goes on to argue for writing that describes the work’s formal qualities. I’m often in agreement with Sontag’s essay – I write in a register that favours description, the investigation of form and technique and the observation of currents of transmission between works. But Gill’s mine holes resist interpretation to the point where I begin to feel uncomfortable about their silence. In the golden light, taken from a distance where activity is barely visible, the mines already look like ruins. Ugly things are beautiful and art demonstrates this over and over. But is it enough to take these silent, liquid works and sink into the materiality, the colour and the surprise of otherworldly places? What if, like water in the desert, they are a mirage, a smokescreen, a trick of the eye?
At the end of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the three naughts are interlinked and set adrift.
Deserts are secret places. In The Red Lands, an essay on the American West, Rebecca Solnit observes, “When I live out here, as I have for a week or so now and again over the past dozen years, it seems hard to believe in cities, let alone in nations, in anything but the sublimity of this emptiness. The Great Basin is wide open topographically but introspective in spirit, turned in on itself; and news from outside seems like mythology, rumour, entertainment, like anything but part of what goes on here or doesn’t, out here where the sparse population is interspersed with sites for rehearsing America’s wars.” 4
Solnit’s essay captures the contradictions of a place where things can be hidden in the open, as if the extreme visibility lends itself to blindness. The aerial perspective of Gill’s photographs, looking across the expanse, recalls images taken from the consoles of fighter jets as they scour for targets.
In Eyes and Storms 7, the hard edge of the pit looks like a drawn line. In the top left corner the edge of the plane’s wing tips into frame. The rock across the bottom third has the mottled texture of a corroded metal sheet. It’s in this image that I’m most aware of the land appearing unnatural, of the topology having been changed and of the ground taking on a hard, weatherbeaten look.
This is the image that most aligns with de Zegher’s assertion of the work’s environmental intent. It brings what’s hidden in the desert face to face with those – all of us – whose lives are deeply entwined with mining and its products but who live in places where it is invisible. But I’m left with a niggling feeling that the formal beauty of Gill’s photographs – and the beauty of the series as a whole with its counterbalanced parts of wet and dry – makes them a zero sum. Both revealing and obscuring, they present the Janus face of horrific beauty and, as a result, cancel out any call to action. Instead, we stare.
Arriving home I notice one of Gill’s naughts in the gutter outside my house. A pull ring popped too hard, right off the can. I leave it there, “in place without alibi”. In the morning it’s gone.
- Brian Massumi, “Making to Place: In the Artist’s Words, Refracted” in Here Art Grows on Trees, ed. Catherine de Zegher, (Venice: Biennale di Venezia 55, 2013), 188. [↩]
- Yvette Biro, “Perhaps the Flood,” in Rouge, 1, 2003, http://www.rouge.com.au/1/tsai.html [↩]
- Catherine de Zegher, “Eyes and Storms as a facet of Simryn Gill’s ‘curating rubbish’”, http://www.utopiaartsydney.com.au/ex-essay.php?exhibitionID=82 [↩]
- Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 18 [↩]