BY Nicola Harvey in Reviews | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Fiona Hall

City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand / Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia

BY Nicola Harvey in Reviews | 01 NOV 08

Fiona Hall, Castles in the Air of the Cave-Dwellers (detail), 2008

Fiona Hall’s work is little known outside her native country. Even with brief stints spent living and studying in London and New York and the development of a practice in which travel is an integral research tool, it is apparent that Australia has remained the artist’s principal focus. This is despite the fact that some of the issues broached in her work – such as the ramifications of colonialism and the impact of globalization – were the thèmes du jour on the northern biennial and blockbuster exhibition circuit in the 1990s. Hall’s career spans 30 years, and she is now rightly acknowledged (with two major retrospectives in five years) as one of the foremost contemporary artists of her generation, keeping company with the likes of Bill Henson and Imants Tillers.

Her recent retrospective ‘Force Field’ at the City Gallery Wellington (CGW), developed in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney, presented a selection of Hall’s work that illustrated the breadth of her practice. As MCA curator Vivienne Webb suggests: ‘Viewing Fiona Hall’s work is like entering a lush garden full of fertile materials, wondrous invention and surprising, even shocking creations.’ Covering the full scope of her oeuvre (including black and white photography, Tupperware light installations and delicate beaten tin, woven or beaded sculptures), the show spread over two floors of the CGW and featured some of the finest, albeit most disconcerting, pieces of the artist’s career to date.

Hall is fascinated with the fraught relationship between the natural world and the depths of humanity (and its depravity) and owes much to scholars and poets of the past, such as William Blake and Dante. Such references are not surprising. James Joyce once noted Blake’s propensity for writing confusedly, claiming that he did so only because he ‘could find no models in the world he knew’ for the times in which he lived. Hall, too, seems disconcerted by the world in which she finds herself and pursues an alchemical model of artistic inquiry, merging the realms of science, nature, philosophy and the spiritual in order to explore the outer reaches of contemporary knowledge systems.

Hall plays with various systems of codification, evident in Tender (2003–5), which features woven nests suspended from the ceiling and also placed on the floor of a glass vitrine, with lists of Latin species names inscribed on the outside of the glass pane. The tight weave of each nest consists of shredded US dollars, each bill referenced by its serial number on the adjacent vitrine’s exterior. Hall’s political concerns are clear in her work, as this piece illustrates. There is a degree of finger-pointing beneath the mask of scientific objectivity, and certainly an accusation that the primary cause for much of the world’s ecological turmoil lies in the hands of the USA. The work evokes a sense of mourning, and the presentation – echoing that typically found in the quiet corners of ethnographic collections such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – suggests not that we should admire the greenback as a specimen, but rather that we attempt to redistribute the wealth (and reverence) embodied in this lifeless paper rectangle in the natural world. Similarly, Medicine Bundles for the Non-born Child (1993) comprises shredded Coke cans knitted together to form a set of baby’s clothes: booties, coat and bonnet. A photographic work entitled The Social Fabric (1996) shows the same shredded cans knitted into a protective cloak, encircling an elderly gentleman. The connotations are clear: big business and global expansion make cold bedfellows for nourishing human life. Such works are crowd-pleasers; one has to admire the prodigious skill evident in the making of each piece, and the final works are beautiful to behold. Nevertheless, they leave little room for subtlety and are not unlike having a placard waved two inches from your face.

However, at her best, Hall creates a space of unnerving ambiguity through sculptural works that splice aspects of the human form with the natural world, suggesting unsettling possibilities. For example, the elaborate series entitled ‘Paradisus Terrestris’ (1990–2005) consists of sardine cans with lids rolled back, revealing a beaten relief sculpture of a body part, often genitalia. Sprouting from the top is a delicate hand-cut tin plant specimen, thus positing humanity as a potential life source, as nourishing rather than destructive.

The most alarming work is Castles in the Air of the Cave-Dwellers (2008). A series of enlarged moulded resin brains adorned with parasitic forms – miniature versions of wasps’ nests and other architecturally complex insect structures – that hang from the brain but do not attack it; rather, they are presented as a mirror to the perfect symmetry of the two lobes. In these works, devoid of any overt political overtones, Hall implies basic similarities between nature and humankind. Shadows cast on the wall behind suggest Plato’s cave analogy. Have we been blissfully unaware of the larger realm of ‘knowledge’ existent in the natural world? Hall seems to be requesting that we simply open our eyes a little and understand there are lessons to be learnt from the realm of nature.