The Cultural Beachcomber

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She has presided over the Sydney Biennale from banners and bus shelters, a deity of earthly delight, bethroned in her flowing chartreuse gown and crown of furry red rambutan fruit. Until last week, she has held court at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Simryn Gill's photo series, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century, 1999-2000. This otherworldly spirit is in fact one of the 39 good citizens of Port Dickson, Malaysia, whom Gill photographed going about their daily lives wearing headdresses of tropical fruit. Inspiration came from an unlikely source: the Time-Life photos of Southeast Asian nations that the Singapore-born, Sydney-based artist pored over as a child in the 1960s. "You have these stupid thoughts-‘I wonder what it would have looked like if they had pumpkins on their heads,'" recalls Gill. "There's nothing profound about that."

Her daydreaming has borne fruit. Sydney Biennale artistic director Richard Grayson praises A Small Town's "fantastic sense of place." Denied access to the subjects' faces, the eye is forced to the frame's edges to scavenge in the detritus of their lives-from Christmas-tree baubles to tapes of ZZ Top-so that what at first appears exotic becomes everyday. A mid-career survey of Gill's work, which opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last week, meanwhile shows how she has accumulated an artistic oeuvre every bit as fantastic. "I ferret, I organize, I think," she explains.

Born of Punjabi ancestry in 1959, two years after Malaysian independence, and schooled in India and England, Gill came late to art. It wasn't until she moved to Adelaide with her social-anthropologist husband in 1987 that she began to make and exhibit her work. Art was a way to immerse herself in the new culture. Scouring Adelaide's op shops, she produced Forking Tongues, 1991, a swirling floor-piece of old cutlery and blood-red chilies, where East and West don't so much meet as feed off each other. If a culture defines itself by what it discards, Gill went straight for the jugular with Roadkill, 2000, where found objects such as drink cans and combs, arranged daintily on toy wheels, swarm across the gallery floor. agnsw curator Wayne Tunnicliffe calls Gill "a real bower-bird, collector woman."

If the artist has an anthropologist's eye, it's often turned upon herself. "Maybe it is to do with the fact that my experience has been so much about trying to find my feet," says Gill. "When you go to boarding school, you hang out and you watch and you wonder how you're going to make your entry." Most recently, she has found her feet with the camera. While on a 1999 residency at ArtPace in San Antonio, Texas, Gill began experimenting with the medium, photographing herself on a dusty desert road, her face shrouded in tumbleweed-"trying to become invisible in a completely doomed-to-fail method," she recalls. Then, armed with a Hasselblad, Gill took off for Port Dickson to render her childhood home invisible.

In A Small Town… #27, the artist stands dwarfed by the pillars of an unfinished building site, a shy, cross-armed figure made conspicuous by a headdress of droopy lungan, the Malayan apple fruit. So, with ingenuity and wit, Gill turns the medium around; revealing more by exposing less. "Once you cover your face, you don't have camera anxiety," says the photographer, "so you get very relaxed."

Completing the disappearing act is her latest series, Dalam, 2001, in which Gill has photographed the living rooms of 258 homes on the Malay peninsula. Wrapped around three walls of the agnsw, it is startling. While only ceiling fans and wall clocks stand sentinel in these people-less spaces, an intensely human presence is felt. Each scene is taken from Gill's diminutive height and flooded with natural light. In the end Dalam (meaning "interior" or "deep" in Malay) is an act of worship, turning these living rooms into shrines. "The journey was not about Simryn Gill, nor was it specifically about Malaysia-it was a lot more abstract than that," she says. Yet when an artist's life spans that of a young nation, there is a desire to see one reflected in the other, and these images hover somewhere in between.

Just don't call her a postcolonial artist. "That makes me roll my eyes," says Gill. Instead, think of her as a cultural trawler, a bit like A Small Town's star-fruited fisherman emerging from the Strait of Malacca with his overladen net. Gill's catch has been just as bountiful. Made up of 2,000 shards of glass she found on the beach at Port Dickson, each piece inscribed with a random word (symbolic, play, obscure…), Washed Up, 1993-like much of her art-is about things lost and found and shared between cultures. Artist, anthropologist, or bower bird? Simryn Gill has found her place in the world.

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