Simryn Gill’s Untitled 2006 is made from over 100 books and pamphlets arranged into a specific order by the artist and displayed so that viewers can leaf through them. Alongside pocket guides, manuals and directories (which classify items as varied as venomous snakes, islands, combat vehicles and invasive plants), there are books on popular psychology, botany, religion and politics, as well as volumes of poetry and fiction. From this wide-ranging selection of books, the artist has chosen over 80 words, all of which have been systematically torn out of each book. Gathered into groups, the culled words are presented as specimens or collections in transparent packages, with the publications from which they have been taken.
Gill’s interventions can be both specific and playful in their construction of new meanings. She frequently uses a range of materials, including books, plant matter such as seeds or skins, photographs and found objects, which she re-works and re-orders. Roadkill (2000), for instance, consists of a collection of objects found on the roadsides of various cities, run-over and flattened by passing traffic, which the artist has rehabilitated by fitting them with toy wheels. Gill re-models these useless, discarded objects, animating them with an unexpected and menacing life-force. For Pearls, (2000-06), an ongoing project, Gill asks people to nominate a book or text of personal importance, from which she uses every page as the material to create beads. For instance, a writer and critic from the Philippines proposed The World Atlas; a young London architect chose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; and a teenage boy in Brisbane selected Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. With their words, phrases and images now only partially visible, the transformed books are returned to their owners to wear like precious jewels or powerful fetishes.
For Untitled, Gill used books as a raw material, choosing words such as ‘because’, ‘vessel’, ‘always’, ‘jealous’, and ‘lull’, and removing them from the books to investigate if, and how, words lose or take on meaning when taken away from their intended structures and contexts. She developed and expanded the selection of words throughout the process of reading and searching each book. A delicate lattice-work is left of the pages from which the words have been hand-torn by Gill and three assistants. By removing words from books, the artist opens up new readings, evoking the complexities of world histories through the ways that the English language has filtered into different places. The word ‘vessel’, for example, immediately calls to mind a ship in British usage whereas in India it describes domestic food containers. By giving individual words a physical and sensual presence, she draws us to their sounds, patterns and visual symmetries.
The artist has included books from her own bookshelves and specifically acquired new material for the project. An avid collector, she has spent many years tracking down books in garage sales and second-hand bookshops, and from small and lesser known publishers in cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Adelaide and, more recently, via the internet. Gill has arranged the books into an unusual yet deliberate order. Rather than by author or date, the artist has compiled the list in an apparently thematic way, clustering particular books to suggest connections. Yet the list also opens up many areas of ambiguity. When it appears as if a system is developing, an anomaly arises which has a destabilising effect on the order of the list.
A cursory glance at the arrangement of books, with titles such as Handy Pocket Guide to Asian Gemstones, Construction Manual of Prefabricated Timber House, House Decoration in Nubia and The Colour Curtain, suggests a theme of decoration or design. However, the title of the last work – by renowned African-American writer Richard Wright – is a metaphor for racial separation on a global scale, and the book is about the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. This meeting of 29 newly independent African and Asian nations ultimately led to the establishment of the Nonaligned Movement in 1961, an organisation of over 100 countries that focuses on national independence and economic development. Elsewhere in the bibliography, Gill mischievously clusters a collection of short stories published by Granta on the theme of ambition and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (which argues that writers creatively misread their predecessors) together with a self-help book about how to live longer by slowing down, a Buddhist missionary manual called Why Worry? and Tranquilisation with Harmless Herbs, a 1970s medical guide. The artist’s arrangement of books in the bibliography makes it is possible to find multiple connections and narratives. Indeed, the installation itself invites free association as the books are repeatedly shuffled and placed into a constantly changing order throughout the day by visitors browsing the collection.
Text by Juliet Bingham