Gayle Chong Kwan


Written by James Read
06 Monday 06th June 2011


Tell us more about your show at the Venice Biennale please!

At the Venice Biennale I am previewing work from The Obsidian Isle (2011), which explores ideas of collective history, the senses and memory, national identity, landscape and tourism. I have documented an island which houses the lost and destroyed places of my native Scotland, referencing the 18th century fictionalized epic of Ossian, as well as my Mauritian heritage, an island whose landscape is being theatricalised and consumed through the global tourist industry. From structures that fell into dereliction after the Highland Clearances, buildings destroyed during the Second World War, places torn down to make way for new developments, or structures that collapsed due to poor construction, the island is a place where visitors are invited to remember or possibly to collectively forget. At the Venice Biennale I will be showing: four of the ten large format photographic works; a cyclorama map of the island; a pair of ebony sensory ‘ruin’ glasses for use on the island with lenses the colour of the sky; and one of the oval photographic works of a sensory-abstracted view of the island.

Supposedly located off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides The Obsidian Isle refers to a controversial literary work. Ossian, the blind 3rd century poet who was ‘discovered’ by James Macpherson in the 18th Century, was presented to the public as the narrator and supposed author, of a cycle of epic poems, translated from fragments of ancient sources in Scots Gaelic. A controversy raged at the time around its publication, and a Committee for the Highlands was set up to investigate its sources and the veracity of Macpherson’s claims.

The Obsidian Isle (photo by Galerie Alberta Pane)

You're synaesthetic right? How extreme is this, how does it manifest for you, and since it's a scent/colour juxtaposition in your case, do you find yourself particularly drawn to scent-associated subjects?

Much of my work explores the senses, memory and movement. Taste and smell can awaken in us rare aspects of memory. Research points to the way in which memories associated with taste and smell tend to be highly emotive, clear and vivid. I have been keen to explore food, not just a statistical or nutritional material, but at the same time a system of communication, a body of imagery, of customs, of situations, of behaviours. I have also been interested in synesthesia, the relatively rare medical condition in which the senses develop cross-linkages, which are hardwired into the brain. I think we all have either some element of synesthesia or that we can use the idea of creatively confusing or layering our senses to develop more methaphorical approaches.

It's Just Bread, 2007

You've created food packaging tower blocks and a bread town. What's the link between urban planning and food?

An Italian academic, Sergio Giusti, once wrote of my work that I do not structure my photos, I cook them. What he was referring to is the way in which the raw and the cooked are associated with the question of the binary opposition nature/culture, with the understanding that cooked corresponds with socialised. I am interested in the process of fictionalisation, but more importantly cultural processes: how a basic need such as food is not just sustenance; but also a collector of belonging - a building block for social community - as well as a curiosity for the exotic and a touristic almost neo-colonial devouring. I am interested in forms of urban planning and architecture, and its corresponding ruin. It is this breakdown of construction that signs a return to the reality of shapelessness.

Paris Remains, 2008

In my series Paris Remains (2008), the sensorial idea of Paris in ruins is explained through the use of leftover foodstuff, which I collected from the city’s pavements. If food and leftovers constitute the building material for many of my works, my other guiding interest is early developments in tourism and the cultural voyage. I am interested in appropriation and its detoured implications: just as the Grand Tour [the traditional travel of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means - kind of like 17th century Interrailing] tried to digest Classicism, mass tourism tries to digest the world in a more superficial and global way – pre-packaged, sweetened and adulterated for wealthy tourists. The sense of the remains is about survival, something that may not be standardised: in the process of constructing these views. I seem to move between raw to cooked to allow the materials release their ancestral qualities, always ready to be corrupted and to return wild.

Terroir and the pathetic fallacy, 2009

Tell us more about 'Terroir' - your tourist resort filled with guests in vegetable masks.

Vegetable masks have featured in my work since Adonia (2006) where I recreated the ancient Greek festival, which was a sensory celebration and metaphoric space in which women discussed and lamented unfulfilled desires using spices and lettuce, throughout the night and on the normally unused rooftops of their houses. A week preceding the festival, held in mid summer, women planted quick-germinating seeds of lettuce in pots. They were watered and fertilised until shoots appeared, when they were then deprived of water. When the seedlings began to die it was time for the festival to begin. The original participants used spices and alcohol, and the festival explored women’s sexual desire on their roof and linked the annual renewal and seasonality of vegetables with the gods and unfulfilled sexuality.

I recreated and updated Adonia for an exhibition at the South London Gallery, in which I invited women to join me to spend the night in the gallery. Amongst the many activities we did, I installed scaffolding from which participants could throw small clay pots with germinated lettuce and plant labels describing unfulfilled desires; we made sensory shrines to previous lovers; the participants could sleep on herb or lettuce pillows to arouse or dampen desires; and throughout the night we recorded participant’s unfulfilled desires on video whilst wearing lettuce masks of disguise which they had made themselves.

Senscape Scotland, 2009

You're a twin - did this lead you to create a lot of fantasy worlds as a child?

As a twin, I was aware of the creative construction of memory, we did not have false memory syndrome, it’s just that sometimes I would think I had done things that my sister actually had, but because she had shared that memory with me so many times I have also started to ‘own’ it in some way.  We did also used to create huge imaginary islands together in our bedroom, with lakes of lemonade and coca-cola, and in our creative play we would end up creating all encompassing installations in our room which we could really develop and share together.

Thames Town, 2008

Your Thames Town images are excellent. How was your visit?

I visited Thames Town in Shanghai as research for my exhibition The Land of Peach Blossom (2008) at Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield where I created a 21st century housing development, a mountain toped gated community, created and carved out of used plastic food packaging. I was interested in the new housing developments in China, which use European themes, such as Thames Town in Shanghai, which is a replica of a traditional English town, as a form of reverse chinoiserie or ‘angloiserie’, which reflects the changing relationship between the East and West.

Having travelled out of Shanghai far along a motorway to an unfinished area, of almost future urban development, I researched and took photographs in Thames Town. Streets such as Downing Street, Soho Street, and Oxford Street are populated by the security guards, who constantly patrol the site dressed as English beefeaters.  The banners hanging throughout the development read, “Come into Thames Town. Taste Original British style of small town. Enjoy sunlight. Enjoy nature. Enjoy your holiday and your life. Dream of England, live in Thames Town”. What I found additionally interesting is the way in which British culture is almost presented an historic relic, and also the way in which locals quite knowingly ‘perform’, often using it as a backdrop for wedding photographs. I developed my research into photographic works which are very cool in tone and engagement and which the obvious traces of it being in China are erased so that only the actual differences in scale and material reveal the uncanny and complex relationships to history and place.


To see more of Gayle's work, visit

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