The Mistress of the House Is the Most Fearsome of All Beasts

At Lunds Konsthall, Simryn Gill adopts the serpent as an emblem of the exhibition’s generative ambivalence.

Simryn Gill, Naga Doodle, 2017.

Entering The Opening Up of the World, Simryn Gill’s first solo exhibition at a Nordic institution, is to be confronted by a den of snakes. Spanning the lower and upper portions of the wall directly behind the Konsthall’s front desk are Gill’s Naga Doodles (2017), a series of prints made using the corpses of cobras, pythons and vipers, among others, that the artist found on the roads near her home outside Kuala Lumpur. Attached at their upper corners, the various sheets of paper flutter with the opening and closing of the front doors. Suddenly animate, the ‘snakes’ — some of which are coiled, but most of which lay flat — surge into view with gruesome detail.

It’s a mis-en-scène recalling Aby Warburg’s “A Lecture on Serpent Ritual”, a text in which the German art-historian — at the time recovering from paranoid psychosis at a sanatorium in Kreuzlingen — analyses imagery of snakes found among the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona. Much like Warburg, Gill positions the snake at the threshold as an intercessor between worlds; a daemonic emissary connecting the human to a multitude of non-human agents. Numbering among them: ‘social insects’ such as bees and ants, several varieties of potatoes bearing women’s names, and a giant banyan tree.

Simryn Gill, Traveling Light, 2017.

Still, it’s the Nagas that lend an aura of symbolic wealth to this otherwise spare exhibition, half of which comprises photographs of ‘empty’ rooms. Again, pace Warburg who in noting that Hopi cosmology depicts the world architecturally, cautioned “the mistress of the house is the most fearsome of all beasts — the serpent.”

Following this, the works on view tend to aggregate around the big themes of death and duration. Which, not coincidentally, are concerns located at the very core of the photographic medium. Just so. That light itself is so often the subject of Gill’s photographs seems to reinforce their quasi-fetishistic quality. As her aptly-titled Sun Pictures (2013), a collection of blowouts and lens flares, attest, the camera itself forms yet another assemblage of human and non-human.

Gill reminds viewers that photography’s gestures toward ‘that-has-been’, also point to that-which-is-becoming. Given the exhibition’s emphasis on material flows and various states of transformation and decay, the theme is particularly acute. To wit, the smooth rectilinear cubes of Domino Theory (2015) are in fact fashioned from soil gathered near termite mounds. Placed in vitrines alongside porous discs and ovoid shapes, they register curiously like camera bodies. 

Simryn Gill, My Own Private Angkor, 2007–2009.

Elsewhere this formal sensibility is played to even greater effect. As in the rear hall, which features a presentation of My Own Private Angkor (2007-9), a monumental grid of 90 black and white photographs depicting the interior of an abandoned housing development in a state of plunder and ruin. Just opposite, installed on both upper and lower galleries, large colour photographs showing gutted windows at sunset echo the konsthall’s distinctive skylights; the architecture brought to fore, camera-like, as a framing device.

Such correspondences, while visually rich, tend however to gloss over the more critical implications of Gill’s work. Traveling Light (2017), a vivid series of prints made from sprouting palm nuts, is most conspicuous in this regard; providing little insight on the artist’s research into the ecologies and economies of palm-oil production, they read rather like decor, and somewhat rehashed at that. Even so, this lack of resolve parallels the generative ambivalence driving this show. Indeed, the ‘opening’ cited in its title might well refer to an aperture — the area of a lens through which light passes — another hole into which a snake might slither.

The Opening Up of the World, installation view, Lunds konsthall.