– Summer 2013

‘O, Outside, show me your innermost!’: Simryn Gill’s ‘My Own Private Angkor’

Anders Kreuger

Simryn Gill, My Own Private Angkor #2, 2007—09, silver gelatin print, 39.4 × 37.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Tracy Williams, Ltd., New York

In genom gallerfönstret flög en fågelfjäder
V inden förde den hit
Eller någon annan förde den
Den fick ligga på golvet, länge
Innan jag tog den i handen
— en vanlig duvofjäder

Nu vill jag säga dig en fånges hemlighet:
Alla duvor är inte vanliga!1

Now, you may ask, what is the point of beginning an essay about a Malaysian-born Australian artist with a poem in Swedish? Please bear with me. I can assure you that I am not going to riff on the untranslatability of poetry, or poetry as translation, or the poetry of visuality, or vice versa. Indeed I am not going to dwell on any topic that doesn’t directly concern my attempt to analyse some of the finest imagery produced in the last years. For me there is nothing ordinary about making and using images in the way Simryn Gill does, and I believe that what she achieves in her work must be addressed as directly and unceremoniously as possible. In this essay I make it my task to ‘show’ her photographic series My Own Private Angkor (2007—09).

To avoid misunderstandings I must first share with you the linguistic meaning of the twenty first dıwan for the imprisoned, tortured and blinded Prince of Emgión. This minor late eleventh-century Kurdish ruler was conceived by one of the few truly great writers of my own language, Gunnar Ekelöf, around the time when I myself was conceived.2 Not that such bibliographic or biographic information really matters here; what I shall attempt is the ‘right’ balance between explication and explanation. Here is my

  1. Gunnar Ekelöf, ‘dīwān no.21’, Dīwān över Fursten av Emgión (Dīwān for the Prince of Emgión), Stockholm: Bonniers, 1965, p.31.

  2. ‘Concerning the Prince of E., no more can be said about him than what is clear from the poems: that he was an Oriental, possibly imbued with some half-Christian ideas. Neither was he a Mohammedan. Greek, Arabic and Iranian concepts are blended in his soul.’ Ibid., p.103. Translation the author’s.

  3. Conversation with the artist, 12 October 2012.

  4. Some reviewers have compared My Own Private Angkor to Francesca Woodman’s photographs fromthe late 1970s. (See for instance Barry  Schwabsky, ‘Simryn Gill’, Artforum, vol.51, no.3, November 2012, pp.278—79.) This is an understandable association on the surface level, and it situates Simryn Gill’s work within an established canon. Yet while there may be some formal correspondence between the spaces depicted by the two artists, the programme of Simryn Gill’s series is only distantly related to that of Woodman’s explicitly anthropocentric, even auto-erotic, photographs.

  5. For a brief and clarifying discussion of James Strachey’s choice of English words for Verdichtung and Verschiebung and other Freudian terminology, see David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation, London and New York: Penguin Books, 2011, pp.309—10.

  6. I always liked this old-fashioned term, so beloved by art history textbook authors, but only now did I think of double-checking what it really means: ‘Hieratic, adjective: 1. Of or associated with sacred persons or offices; sacerdotal; 2. Constituting or relating to a simplified cursive style of Egyptian hieroglyphics, used in both sacred and secular writings; 3. Extremely formal or stylised, as in a work of art.’ Available at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hieratic (last accessed on 26 February 2013).

  7. This is another classical but dubious translation from the German, of Hegel’s Aufheben, which might alternatively be rendered as ‘bringing to a new level by cancelling out’.

  8. Figures de différents caractères, de paysages et d’études dessinées d’après nature par Antoine Watteau (Figures of Different Characters, of Landscapes and of Studies Drawn from Nature by Antoine Watteau) is a posthumous edition of engravings based on 351 drawings by Watteau, overseen by his friend and promoter Jean de Julienne and printed in Paris in 1726—28.

  9. Simryn Gill’s work Throwback (2007), shown at documenta 12 (2007), consisted of 82 parts from a 1980s Indian-made Tata truck, cast in the following materials: termite mound soils, river clay, laterite, seashells, fruit skins (banana, mango, mangosteen), leaves (bodhi, sea almond, durian), coconut bark and fibre, areca nut casings, kapok, lalang grass, banana trunk, bougainvillea flowers, gelatin glue, damar resin and milk.

  10. G. Ekelöf, ‘dīwān no.17’, Dīwān över Fursten av Emgión, op. cit., p.27. My translation of the seventeenth dīwān, which in the original looks and sounds like this: ‘O, Utsida, jag ville se / din Insida / Var den röd? Var den vit? / O, Utsida, visa mig ditt innersta! / Är det vitt? Är det rött? / Du Utsida, är du tapper nog? / Du Insida, är du tapper? / Säg vad förklädnad du bär / hur du sminkar dig så vit och så röd / för att dina kinder skall bli så vackra / och dina fötter så små / att de nätt och jämnt syns / under ett blommigt tyg.’