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A Small Town at the Turn of the Century is a series of forty square-format c-type photographs taken in Simryn Gill’s home town of Port Dickson in Malaysia. The series exists in an edition of five of which Tate’s copy is number one. The photographs can be shown as a full set, in smaller groups, or as individual works. Although the artist has previously displayed them pinned directly to the wall, they can also be framed. There is no particular order in which they need to be displayed.
The photographs feature people whose faces are hidden by tropical fruits, which act as substitutes for heads. Some photographs show a group of people, while others show individuals. Some were taken inside houses; others were taken outside. There are numerous variations on the subjects’ poses and accoutrements, often suggesting work or leisure activities, such as playing golf, fishing or drinking tea. A variety of fruits appear in the series, including watermelons, durians, jackfruits and bunches of bananas. The subjects of the photographs go about their business as if it were normal to have fruit heads. The colourful compositions and absurd combination of fruit heads and human bodies convey a surreal, humorous and cartoon-like aesthetic. As the title suggests, the photographs were taken at the turn of the twenty-first century.
A Small Town at the Turn of the Century is representative of Gill’s practice, in which modification and transformation are important concepts. As curator Jessica Morgan has written: ‘Not only do people become fruit, but also books become vegetation, discarded or crushed objects develop mobility, photographs become sculpture, people become books, and books become beads’ (Morgan in Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney 2008, p.60). Transformation is found in Gill’s work on a number of different levels, including artistic genres and media as well as subject matter, questioning and blurring the lines between fixed categorisations. By morphing her sitters’ faces into fruits, Gill equates them with the tropical vegetation associated with their country while leading the artistic genres of portrait and still life to the point of absurdity. The motif of combining human subjects with plants can also be found in a number of Gill’s earlier photographic series. Out of my Hair 1995 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), for instance, includes a photograph of a woman who wears a wig made from banana skins. Vegetation 1999 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), on the other hand, consists of self-portraits of the artist, whose face is disguised by various plant species local to the landscapes in which the photographs were taken. A Small Town at the Turn of the Century is also representative of Gill’s practices as a whole in its use of natural materials. Her photographs, installations and object-based works often include fruits, fruit skins, tree roots or seeds.
While using a cheerful and humorous language, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century nevertheless raises critical questions around identity and postcolonialism. The combination of human subjects with fruits invokes the close relationship between humankind and the plant world and the interrelations between culture and nature. Hiding the faces behind fruits, Gill also shows how identities can be hidden and new ones imposed upon them through visual appearance and habitat. Gill addresses the possibility of multiple and changing identities by demonstrating the arbitrary and manipulable nature of their formation. Furthermore, the playful equation of the Malaysian sitters with tropical fruits raises questions regarding stereotypical associations of other cultures: as with the Malaysian fruits that are exported to the West as exotic products, so Malaysian people are defined by their ‘otherness’. The colourful fruit also playfully allude to traditional memento mori paintings; the lifespan of the fruits, as well as of the people they conceal, is necessarily limited.
In addition to photography, Gill’s practice encompasses a variety of other media, including installation, sculpture and writing. As is the case with A Small Town at the Turn of the Century, and the slightly later Dalam 2001 (Tate P14285), her work is often organised in series, challenging rigid typologies and classifications.
Simryn Gill: Selected Work, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2002.
Simryn Gill, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Sydney 2008.