– Summer 2013

Present and Unread: Simryn Gill’s ‘Where to draw the line’

Weng Choy Lee

Simryn Gill, Where to draw the line, 2011–12, ink on paper, 105 x 189cm unframed/113.5 x 201.5cm framed, detail. Photograph: Sylvie Ball. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Modern Women's Fund Committee of The Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy the artist and Tracy Williams, Ltd., New York

‘can we be ironic’. Typewritten on a plain sheet of paper and centred on the page, with no spaces between the words, the question, albeit without the mark, is repeated four times — not in a single row, but one right on top of the other, and, again, without any breaks between either words or lines. In the first instance, ‘can’ is typed in red ink, with the rest in black; in the second, it is ‘we’ that is in red; for the third, it is ‘be’; then it is ‘ironic’.

Back in the day, when we still used typewriters to write school assignments, we did not have to think of fonts. Now, it is not just designers and typesetters who are aware of names like ‘Courier’, ‘Palatino’ and ‘Helvetica’; we all are. Oh, how one remembers, with ineluctably nostalgic fondness, those lovely clacking sounds. But dig a bit deeper into memory, and you are struck by a small recognition: when was the last time you thought about spools of typewriter ribbon, with the black ink upper half and the lower red? Trying to recall the mechanics of it all, I got caught up with a reminiscence of how you had to press the shift key with some force, physically shifting the basket of typebars. With the shift lock key you had to wait, even if it was just a fraction of a second, for the click to lock. But what I should have been searching for in my mind was that lever you had to flick to change the ribbon strike from black to red. Writing with machines was once so

  1. I remember listening to a podcast that argued that the typewriter would eventually become a short interlude in the long history of writing. Incidentally, Mark Twain noted in his autobiography that he was perhaps ‘the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature’. See http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/yankee/cymach4.html (last accessed on 12 March 2013) for a reproduction of a Remington typewriter advertisement that quotes Twain’s autobiography, citing an excerpt from Harper’s Weekly (18 March 1905). Nowadays almost every writer uses a computer, although we still have a long way to go before our use of the word processor surpasses the typewriter’s century.

  2. See Simryn Gill, Pearls (artist's book), London: Raking Leaves, 2008.

  3. Russell Storer, ‘Simryn Gill: Gathering’, in Simryn Gill (exh. cat.), Sydney and Cologne: Museum of Contemporary Art and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig, 2008, p.51.

  4. Deriving from both Malay and Chinese sources, towkay is a colloquial word used in both Malaysia and Singapore that means ‘big boss’ and refers to someone of Chinese ethnicity.

  5. See my article ‘Local Coconuts: Simryn Gill and the Politics of Identity’, ArtAsiaPacific, no.16, 1997, pp.56—63.

  6. Kevin Chua, ‘Simryn Gill and Migration’s Capital’, Art Journal, vol.61, no.4, Winter 2002, pp.9 and 21.