Sand gets everywhere. Walk on it, sit on it, lie on it – it sticks between your toes and burrows into your clothes. Sand gets everywhere. Transient yet enduring, it counts down the minutes in an hourglass, and is also a marker of ancient, geological time. It is everywhere, too, in Gayle Chong Kwan’s multipart installation, A Pocket Full of Sand – whether assuming the form of sombre architectural sandcastles, or evoking the patina of Victorian sand paintings, or rendered across a large-scale photographic panorama that butts together two iconic geological sites: the Alum Bay sands on the Isle of Wight and the Seven Coloured Earths in Mauritius. These two islands, at either end of Empire, act as the anchor points of Chong Kwan’s subtly polemical work, which deftly discloses the colonial legacies that continue to percolate in the distance between them. In this, the regular souvenir-hunting forays of generations of tourists to Alum Bay (where thousands of visitors still buy phials of multi-coloured sand to take home) is contrasted with the extraction economy of Mauritius, which Britain transformed into a plantation monoculture to grow and export sugar. Similar to sand in the way that its granular character acquires deceptively substantial mass that can just as easily crumble, sugar (and its traces and by-products) also features prominently throughout the installation: glimpsed in flashes of archive footage and manifested in the vari-sized sculptural structures made from blocks of bagasse (the waste material left over from sugar production) that are dotted, like islets, around the gallery space. Outwardly colourful and playful, A Pocket Full of Sand takes impassioned aim at a previously dominant colonial worldview that embedded its baleful influence across so much of the globe – an influence that once aspired to get everywhere, and which is still taking time to shake off.
A Pocket Full of Sand is now on view at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton until 11 May 2024
A Pocket Full of Sand is an exhibition of new work by Gayle Chong Kwan, commissioned and supported by John Hansard Gallery and Film and Video Umbrella.
Exhibition supported by Sugarcrete, University of East London.