Invasion of the Pod People
Museum of Contemporary Art - National Gallery - Finland - 1998
I have strong but unclear memories of Studio-Vista books. As a child and young teenager rapidly becoming interested in all forms of painting and visual culture, these were some of the few publications about contemporary art easily available in the Hertford Public Library of the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies, other than a book on Picasso and bizarrely the autobiography of Man Ray. Often these books did not focus on a particular painter or school of art but had a strong generalist and pedagogic intention, which was to educate about the fundamentals and principles of art and design. In retrospect these fundamentals and principles were obviously those determined by a specific modernist and reductive aesthetic, but at the time they seemed to refer - and saw themselves as so doing- to absolutes which were indubitably and unshakeably the underpinnings of 'proper' aesthetics. A typical double page spread might consist of a shot of Frank Lloyd Wrights Guggenheim Museum on the right hand side, compared and contrasted to the swirls of a pine cone shot close-up from above. Similarly a sea shell might be shown next to a 'modern' sixties telephone. Spirals were popular, as were vaguely aerodynamic teardrop or egg-like shapes. These pages were all visual essays to teach that 'good design' was flowing, 'natural' and clean. As such, it set itself apart from the post Bauhaus puritanism, of, for instance, Mies Van de Rohe and aligned itself rather to a more organic aesthetic, Brancusi rather than Mondrian: but it still shared the stern reductiveness of modernist approaches: less is more, form follows function. Nature is to be used as a design principle as it itself works (at least in the examples used) on mathematical principles. A point which was often visually proved through the use of strongly contrasting micro and macro shots - a spiral arm galaxy next to something swirly seen under a microscope. Of course such ideas were nothing new, a fact that such texts liked to point out through reproducing extracts from Hogarth's Treatise On Beauty, and in particular focussing the 'line of beauty' which he identified as a gently undulating 's' bend, abstracted (with illustrations) from the forms of running water or the languorous curve of a swans neck. The essential 'rightness' of this approach was again articulated through cutting edge modern art: not only in the works of Brancusi, but Barbara Hepworth, Victor Pasmore, Moholy Nagy and Ben Nicholson. Often reproduced were photos of Henry Moore's studio featuring his collection of flint nodules, the holes and fluid forms of which seemed to say that the ontology of the natural world generated Henry Moore (and modern art) almost on its own, a natural outcome.
We can see that one of the imperatives of such representations was teleological: 'nature' was used as a signifier of direction, suggesting that the arrow of the modernist project was as inevitable and as fore-ordained as the very force that drives the sap through the flower, or the presumed progress of history, of evolution. At the time there were no Steven J Goulds to point out to us that the ladder of evolution, with one improved form ineluctably following on from and replacing an earlier is just an optimistic (mis)reading. Between the pages of these publications the natural was used to prove that the 'good' products of our culture, be they mass manufactured or hand made, were the confluence of the forces of man and nature. These various dynamics and various histories are forcefully bought to mind when we look at the wheeled forms of pods and seeds, like a thousand futuristic electric cars, that constitute the work 'Self-seeds' by Simryn Gill.
Of course we can identify a darker side to this dialogue, usually expressed in the fictions of progress. It is a cliche of science fiction of the fifties and sixties that the forms of 'advanced' civilisations tend towards the organic, albeit smooth metallic and shiny ones. In a spoof of the form by William Gibson, much of the action takes place by the side of a shiny egg shaped car. We can also detect a subterranean fear of miscegenation between the 'natural' and the cultural, and in particular between the vegetable and the mammal running through many of these fictions, where the 'seed' is seen as an expression of a blind and unstoppable volition: from 'The Day of The Triffids' to 'The Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. The words 'seed' and 'pod' (be it pod-shaped or the pod people) holds an uncanny fascination within science fiction. Obviously much of this can be seen as symbolic of Cold War anxieties, where the heroic warm blooded individualism of the (capitalist) West is attacked and overwhelmed (literally so at the start of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers where giant intergalactic seeds consume then replicate humans) by the agency of an 'other' (Communism) which is not concerned with the individual but with the group or species. Communism too represented itself as inevitable, with the laws of history functioning as those of nature. The image of the 'insect' functions in these texts in the same way: the group rather than the individual, but each component having the powers of direction and movement. Looking at the photos of 'Self-seeds', this vast grouping of small wheeled seed capsules, I thought immediately of a hundred sci-fi films - most recently the re-make of 'Lost In Space - where the actors are threatened by a swarm of a hundred million chittery insecty moving things surging down a corridor towards them. Outside of the fantasies of the twentieth century we are alarmed at some deeper level by the idea of the vegetable (or nearly so within our understandings) having the force of direction and movement and therefore some dumb intelligence. Fears that find strong and current expression in the current debates on nano and bio-technology.
The positioning of ideas and narratives of the 'natural' within those of the 'cultural' has been one of the constant themes in Simryn Gill's work. These are given a specific and complex spin in her approaches through their articulation and exploration within the contexts of the 'colonial'. These are rhetorics which , from the totalising point of view of the coloniser tend to place the (other)cultural within the realms of the 'natural' anyway. Gills work complicates, explicates and refuses these binary placements through looking at the culture(s) of the natural, and, if you like, giving the natural a narrative thrust, (giving it wheels). This has been variously achieved through her making plant like forms out of texts - 'Forest' - or reversing this and making seeds and plants them-selves textual components: in one proposed piece, 'Story trees' narratives are inscribed on coconuts and then these are set to drift on major sea currents to take root where they are washed up, and in another - 'Wonderlust' - words and phrases are bruised into the skins of bananas. In one way or another, the natural component is placed into various and complex syntaxes. be they historical, personal, cultural, or culinary.
With 'Self-seeds' The very act of placing the seed-pod in such intimate and close proximity with the man-made wheels, bonding them together, suggests the close relationship in history between the technological development of different cultures and the animal and vegetable environments which they occupy. These relationships help determine the tendency of civilisations and cultures to spread laterally across the globe rather than vertically, thus remaining within the bands able to support their staple food-stuffs. In other environments cultures may not make the shift from the hunter-gatherer to the farmer owing to the natural materials available - this having a direct effect on everything from a societies social grouping to the length of time that children are breast fed. Other cultures may not invent the wheel as the botany and biology of the area that they have settled has not provided an animal that is capable of pulling loads or domestication.
Outside of these larger cultural and technological formations: politics, movements, travels, invasions and stories; the micro-cultural events of a quotidian history have also been triggered through the search for plants, seeds and natural materials. An early work of Simryn Gills 'Red Hot' part referenced Columbus's chance discovery of America whilst he was in search of a passage to India for the spice trade. And from this starting point the work suggested the complex confusions and exchanges that shape histories, from the American peoples being known in Europe as 'Indians' to the peoples of India embracing the chilli pepper as a central part of their cooking. Raphael Samuel when talking of new ways of teaching history in schools suggests that complex socio-cultural imperial narratives can be uncovered and explored through students analysing the histories and placement of the constituents of their school's lunch-time rice-pudding (Island Stories 1998)
The movements of seeds and plants help determine stories and histories. Their vectors not only travel through time and space, but through cultures, histories, futures, imaginations and memories. Each seed, each pod holds a potential of 'direction', albeit one not necessarily determined by an alien intelligence, but, as 'Self-seeds' suggests, with enough strange volition for us to feel certain that, in the best science fiction traditions, (both utopian and dystopian), our lives and cultures, dreams and nightmares, are articulated through, and are the products of, a protean and complex symbiosis with other life-forms.