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How My Book Got Slashed In London's Tate Modern

How My Book Got Slashed In London's Tate Modern

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- London's Tate Modern museum recently discovered a woman who, wielding a sharp blade, obsessively cut more than 80 words from 123 books, including our nonfiction tome, "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.

She mutilated the books, amputating words in a relentless surgery of slicing and dicing. When she finally laid down her tool, the slashed books' pages looked as if they were paper shrapnel, salvaged from a crime scene after a schizoid word-killer, armed with a Wanchai meat cleaver, had chopped away words that were ripe with special meaning known only to the artist, and perhaps to conspiratorial Illuminati who might be visiting the Tate.

Conceptual artist Simryn Gill's pile of meticulously plundered books ultimately became an installation at the Tate Modern called, perhaps ironically, "Untitled (2006)."

What fate would next befall our beloved book? Would it be crucified and submerged in a glass of urine, similar to the "Piss Christ" by American photographer Andres Serrano? Or chopped and hoisted like one of Damien Hirst's dead sharks?

"Simryn Gill's 'Untitled (2006)' is made from over 100 books and pamphlets arranged into a specific order by the artist, and displayed so that viewers can leaf through them," the Tate says on its illustrated website which describes the bizarre exhibit.

"Alongside pocket guides, manuals and directories -- which classify items as varied as venomous snakes, islands, combat vehicles and invasive plants -- there are books on popular psychology, botany, religion and politics, as well as volumes of poetry and fiction. From this wide-ranging selection of books, the artist has chosen over 80 words, all of which have been systematically torn out of each book. Gathered into groups, the culled words are presented as specimens, or collections, in transparent packages, with the publications from which they have been taken," says the Tate.

The 123 books chosen by Ms. Gill for the Tate Modern's March 18 – May 7, 2006 exhibit also included books by or about Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, George Bernard Shaw, R. D. Laing and others. After cutting into the 123 books, Ms. Gill placed the targeted words in separate, clear plastic bags, as if they were evidence. For example, she filled up one plastic bag with the word "because," so it became a bag full of because. Could this be symbolic of when people mouth a lot of reasons, they are simply offering a bunch of "because"?

"For the Level 2 Gallery, Gill has created a thought-provoking installation from a collection of books assembled over many years. Ranging from pulp fiction to academic writings, these publications provide the raw material which Gill then uses to tease out a supposedly 'neutral' set of words," the Tate adds.

To create "Hello My Big Big Honey!", Canadian screenwriter Dave Walker and I collected love letters written by men in Europe, the States and elsewhere, who returned home after falling for Bangkok's bar girls. Men were airmailing their hearts and confessions in envelopes, sometimes with money, to the Thai women they previously rented. We deleted everyone's names, and published the men's best love letters alongside our Q and A interviews with Thai bar girls, a Thai translator who became the girls' mentor, and a Thai professor. In an expanded American edition, we included interviews with a bar's mama-san and three very outspoken bar owners -- a Thai, a Brit and an American -- plus 25 color photos. The text is extremely graphic because we didn't censor the letters or interviews. "Hello My Big Big Honey!" examines love, sex, money, tourism, AIDS, Buddhism, Thai culture, family life, betrayal, trust, and a lot of West-bonks-East confusion.

I was ecstatic our book was exhibited in the rarified Tate, and told friends and colleagues who reacted in all sorts of ways, even though none of us saw the installation:

"Time to get you a beret and cig holder," a Canadian photographer advised.

A New Yorker touring London said, "I went by there yesterday in hope of personally witnessing this -- and ideally, sneaking a photo for you -- but I only had half an hour before I had to meet someone, and they charge 10 pounds to get in. Oh well."

A French editorial cartoonist was less enthusiastic about the cut-ups, and suggested, "She should have done it with a Bible, a Koran, and a Torah. Free worldwide publicity and a fatwa. I'm kind of old fashion when it comes to art. Too much nonsense stuff with conceptual art. Just shit in the exhibition gallery instead of your usual bathroom and that's it, it's 'Art'. It's more easy to cut words from others' books than actually writing a book. I would not feel honored if she was doing this with my work," he sniffed.

Ms. Gill however is now hailed as, "My Big Big Gill With Delightful Membrane!" at a small shrine honoring her -- decked with purple incense, wooden doll heads, a spherical prism, and fake currency to be burned if she ever dies -- all wedged into a Shiva altar near my desk here in Bangkok.

Googling Ms. Gill reveals a lot about her work and life, but not an email address to interview her about which words she chose, and how our book inspired her. She was born in Singapore in 1959, grew up in Port Dickson, Malaysia, and currently resides in Sydney, Australia. In an exhibit titled, "Forest," she tore out pages from other famous books, cut them to resemble twigs and leaves, and stuck them in various locations around Singapore and Port Dickson, including an empty Chinese hotel, a mangrove swamp and a tapioca stall along a road, and photographed the results. In "Pearls," she created big, hard beads from spirals of words printed on paper, and strung the beads of text into necklace-like strands.

If you're wondering what you should be reading, the 123 books in her "Untitled (2006)" offer lots of Asia-related titles, including:
– Blue Monkish, by Zai Kuning, 1996
– Stick and Leaf Insects of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, by Paul D. Brock, 1999
– The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, 1954
– The Power of Movement in Plants, by Charles Darwin, 1880
– Poisonous Snakes of the World: A Manual for Use by U.S. Amphibious Forces, by the Department of the Navy, 1965
– Barrack Room Ballads, by Rudyard Kipling, 1914
– The Coconut, by Edwin Bingham Copeland, 1931
– Old Goa, by S. Rajagopalan, 1987
– Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje, 1984
– Report On The Trial of Xanana Gusmao in Dili, East Timor, by the International Commission of Jurists, 1993
– The Chronicles of Gujarat, by Captain A. C. Elliot ISC, 1970
– The Asian Highway: A Complete Overland Guide from Australia to Europe, by Jack Jackson and Ellen Crampton, 1979
– An Approach to Vedanta, by Christopher Isherwood, 1963
– In Good Faith, by Salman Rushdie, 1990
– Oriental Despotism, by Karl A. Wittfogel, 1957
– Life the Goal, by J. Krishnamurti, 1928
– Tranquilisation with Harmless Herbs, by Eric F. W. Powell, 1974
– Chinese Magic and Superstition in Malaya, by Leon Comber, 1960
– Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
– Cambodia in the South East Asian War, by Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan, 1973

***** -ENDS- *****

Richard S. Ehrlich is the Bangkok-based special correspondent for international media, and has reported from Asia for the past 28 years. "Hello My Big Big Honey!" is available via or by order at any bookshop (the new, expanded American edition is ISBN 0867194731). Excerpts are online via Ehrlich's website

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