A methodology of imaginal travel: Gayle Chong Kwan’s sweet connections between Mauritius & the Isle of Wight
Unexpected relationships are made between The Isle of Wight and Mauritius in a new solo exhibition from Gayle Chong Kwan at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. Will Jennings visited to discover poetic, abstracted, and playfully unexpected narratives flowing between the two islands, with architectural solidity made more precarious through a colonial lens.

An exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery seeks to draw literal and poetic connections between two islands which at first may seem to have little in common. The genteel Isle of Wight off the south coast of England and the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius are both taken within the research of Gayle Chong Kwan in her mixed-media installation A Pocket Full of Sand.

Dominating the longest wall of the main gallery is a digitally printed canvas of overlapping brownish, reddish hues. It is hard to read any single form from what appears to be a plethora of images collapsing in on one another, but as one’s eyes adjust certain moments seem to reveal themselves from a tableau. “It references the sand paintings from the Victorian era,” Chong Kwan says of the canvas which represents the geological strata of Alum Sands on the Isle of Wight, a geological trait of coloured earth and sand which it shares with Mauritius, one of a number of relationships between the two places explored by the artist through a long period of research.


It initially comes from a personal intrigue. “My father's Chinese family went from China to Mauritius to work on sugar plantations,” says Chong Kwan who also adds that her mother’s Scottish family went to India to work on the East Indian Railway. A Pocket Full of Sand is about such intermingled histories through a colonial lens, and while it touches on a range of architectural and historical elements, a central strand is sugar.

Near the entrance, on the floor and up against the gallery-white wall, is a small pile of brown sugar cubes. Visitors are free to take one, perhaps to eat as they explore the exhibition or to keep as memento. It’s a reference to Felix Gonzalez-Torres series of twenty candy works, in which over the 1990s he placed a pile of sweets matching the weight of his partner who had died of AIDS-related illnesses. By taking a sweet, the viewer activates the work and also in in some way complicit within a system and economy which results in such death. Chong Kwan distorts the piece, making it about “the body of the indenture and labour behind” the sugar industry, rooted in imperial slavery then indenture as part of a colonial capitalist project.


Across the length of the adjacent canvas are lines of what appear to be bodies in the landscape. They are deliberately ambiguous, hovering between the possibility of being soldiers or indentured labourers in the fields. “I was thinking about the way we label indentured labourers, how they become part of the extraction,” the artist explains of the anonymity of the figures who conflate into the landscape, losing identities and histories. “I call it a methodology of imaginal travel,” the artist says of the canvas which is neither the Isle of Wight nor Mauritius, but a concoction between and apart from them both, also featuring a range of architectural forms.

Other architectures appear as abstracted sculptures within the gallery space. Made of precariously balanced small cubes made of sugar industry waste mixed with lime – a material the artist has been exploring alongside the Sugarcrete Project at the school of architecture at the University of East London – the small sculptures invite the viewer to lay meaning and architectural form into them. Perhaps they are neolithic. Or might they represent the medieval towers of Bologna? Perhaps they are rough representations of neoliberal skyscrapers, or surveillance or control towers from militarised landscapes of the past or present. Could they be TS Eliot’s falling towers of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London in The Waste Land?


“I was struck by physical and political structures of power, play, leisure, and materiality falling apart, with a tendency to entropy,” the artist says, and other architecture in A Pocket Full of Sand is indeed collapsing. The architectures hinted at in the panorama canvas return as intricate castles made of sand – which at a squint could read as the sugar piled up at the exhibition’s entrance – speaking to the beaches and sea which both separates and connects the two islands. “One is a defensive fort built by the British for perceived French invasion of Mauritius, which was never used,” says the artist, while another is the Vagrant Depot of Grand River North West, a prison for errant indentured labourers.

Another is Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, famed for being where Charles I was imprisoned prior to execution, but also in 1786 considered as a site of training for East India Company recruits. A new permanent training place was established on the island a few years later, the castle having been rejected on the grounds that the decrepit state of the walls meant soldiers may escape or the whole thing might collapse.

One of the sand buildings in Chong Kwan’s film does collapse. Interspersed with archive promotional footage of Mauritius featuring a visiting boy pop some locally-made sugar into his pocket, intermingled with other archive film of colonial labourers working the sugarcane plantation, is a long single-frame shot of one of the sand buildings succumbing to rising tides. Slowly, as the sun sets, waters rise and the fortified building transforms into something less secure, piece by piece collapsing and dissipating into the watery connection between Mauritius and the Isle of Wight.


Gayle Chong Kwan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and academic whose work is exhibited internationally in galleries and the public realm. Her large-scale photographic works, immersive installations, and sensory ritual events act within and against histories of oppression and positions the viewer as one element in a cosmology of the political, social and ecological.

Exhibitions include Waste Archipelago, Venice (2021);Wastescape, Auckland, New Zealand (2019); The People’s Forest, William Morris Gallery (2018); The Fairlop Oak, Barbican; Anthropo-scene, Bloomberg Space (2015); Wastescape, Southbank Centre (2012); The Obsidian Isle, New Forest Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011); Cockaigne, Tales from the New World, 10th Havana Biennial, Cuba (2009). Artist in Residence in Photography at the V&A (2019-2021), Waste Archipelago (2021) with Ca’ Foscari University Venice, as winner of the Sustainable Art Prize. Memory Trace (2012) for the Wellcome Trust.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha Studios.


A Pocket Full of Sand by Gayle Chong Kwan, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella with John Hansard Gallery, is exhibited until 11 May. Further details can be found at: www.jhg.art/events/gayle-chong-kwan-a-pocket-full-of-sand


figs.i-vi,viii A Pocket Full of Sand by Gayle Chong Kwan at John Hansard Gallery, 2024. Photographs © Reece Straw.
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fig.vii Still from A Pocket Full of Sand (2024) a moving image work by Gayle Chong Kwan. © Gayle Chong Kwan.

publication date
21 February 2024

Alum Sands, Carisbrooke Castle, Gayle Chong Kwan, Colonisation, East India Company, TS Eliot, Empire, Extraction, Geology, Indentured labour, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Film and Video Umbrella, The Isle of Wight, Will Jennings, John Hansard Gallery, Mauritius, Sand, Sandcastle, Slavery, Southampton, Strata, Sugar, Sugarcane, Sugarcrete, Towers, University of East London