Vegetation, Simryn Gill playfully notes, is inspired by her desire “to be a plant in the American landscape.” As a North Indian woman born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia and currently residing in Sydney, Australia, she knows something of what it means to be uprooted, to use a botanical metaphor Gill favors. In her first trip to the United States, she wanted to investigate the complexities that surround our ideas about what it means to be indigenous.
Gill’s quest took her in search of the wide open spaces for which the American West is famous. However, she found she had to travel for six hours through the West Texas landscape to find land not hemmed in by fences. There she briefly enacted her fantasy, bringing home the evidence in the form of a series of black and white photographs.
Becoming a plant was not an easy process. On locating the appropriate sites, Gill gathered native plants and brought them back to her studio. There she transformed them into face-obscuring headdresses. Then Gill returned to the original site where she, and occasionally several other plant-spirited accomplices, posed for photographs wearing the headdresses within the rugged Texas landscape.
Though Gill’s description of her enterprise is humorous, it has serious implications. One of Gill’s intentions was to bring out the philosophical, social and political paradoxes that surround questions of nature, land and identity. Take, for instance, the fences. Fences imply ownership of land, but land outlasts all its “owners.” Who really owns whom? Similarly, while political borders determine national identity and make indigenous humans into foreigners, plants ignore human borders. People may be defined by accidents of geography, but who has ever heard of an American or Mexican plant?
Gill also alludes to Western culture’s mind/body distinction. In the conventional hierarchy of life, she suggests, as human is to plant, so mind is to body. Thus, she and her comrades demonstrate, when humans cover their heads, which they regard as the seat of their rationality and identity, they can imagine they are invisible. Yet there their bodies are, visible for all to see.
In these photographs, Gill and her semi-camouflaged comrades rise above prairie grass, stand in front of barbed wire fences and sit along the banks of the Rio Grande, the region’s most powerful border. The absurdity of their half human- half plant personas is further evidence of the clash between the human artifice of boundaries and the mobility of vegetation.
Vegetation is an extension of Gill’s longtime use of horticulture as a metaphor for the human situation. This subject matter allows her to undermine the familiar dichotomy between nature and culture. As an Asian artist from a region of the world deeply marked by the history of Western colonization, she is well aware of the Western tendency to view the Asian Other as an embodiment of “nature” and thus implicitly inferior to the norm of culture and civilization embodied by the West. By deliberately confusing the languages of nature and culture, she demands that we question such assumptions.
Gill reveals how the vocabulary of horticulture parallels that of politics. For instance, she points out that in the human world, the word naturalization refers to the legal procedure by which a person achieves citizenship. In the plant world, it refers to the condition of a species which has started to populate itself in the wild. The definitions are similar, but one involves exclusionary legal regulations and the other a natural process. The nature vocabulary spills over in other ways as well. We speak of human populations disseminating their seed or uprooting themselves. Meanwhile, the old hierarchy which places culture over nature remains in place when we say that people vegetate or that those who have lost consciousness have become vegetables. This lexicon suggests that nature metaphors are deeply imbedded in human consciousness. Gill reminds us that even the most radical transformations of industry and modernity cannot obliterate them.
In earlier work, Gill has pursued such ideas in works which blur the line between nature and culture. She has inscribed texts on the leaves of plants and carved them into coconuts set adrift in the ocean. She has also added tiny wheels to pods and seeds from Australia and Malaysia, transforming them into miniature vehicles which represent the global spread of food-stuffs and technology. She has made a suit from coconut bark and created paper leaves for living plants from the pages of classic books which deal with human exploration and botanical evolution. In all these works, there is both a sly wit and a thoughtful consideration of the mythologies of human identity.
Vegetation is the latest of these explorations. The plant people sprouting from the West Texas landscape are both alien and peculiarly familiar. They are reminders that none of us can escape the matrix of conflicting identities imposed upon us by geography, politics, history and biology.
Eleanor Heartney is a Contributing Editor of Art in America and author of Critical Condition: American Culture at the Crossroads.