Fiona Hall

In Issue 44, 2018, Artist Profile visited Fiona Hall in Hobart as she was preparing a new work for the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale. Known for her multi-media installations featuring a variety of hand-honed materials, the artist is focusing her energies on the fraught subject of war, and how it has always been a part of the human condition.

Fiona Hall is standing in a studio full of broken bottles that open out into a winter garden. The earth is stubbled with dormant bulbs and the water beyond looks cold. Her materials within this space are ordinary yet menacing. Shards of green and sepia glass have been painted with chalky oil paint to outline the shattered bones of skeletons and the glass lies on the floor in a formation that you swiftly realise is meant to summon a mass grave.

Forest Floor (2018) is a new work that Hall is preparing for the Bangkok Biennale, which opens on 19 October, 2018. Under considerable pressure and spread across no less than three international projects this year alone, I ask her if she needs help smashing the bottles. Her gaze suggests a polite refusal. An artist known for intricate multi-media installations with a preference for the hand honed, Hall has photographed, painted, printed, drawn, carved, etched, woven and sculpted vast collections of objects for a single show yet rarely accepts the help of an assistant. Her economy stands in stark contrast to the industrial manufacture of major recent Biennale installations, such as Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017) but it also testifies to the interdependence between broad concept and lean resource. And the importance of her own touch.

Across three decades, Hall’s work vibrates in a shared energy field, set to an emotional temperature that hums like a fever. Her eye for detail is febrile and the collision between commonly ‘known’ materials and raw cultural incongruence sometimes teeters on the edge of hallucination. I refer to the wrinkled spectre of Rupert Murdoch painted onto the face of a cuckoo clock, tiny bird’s nests woven from shredded currency, masks made of knitted camouflage cotton and the savage little sex organs sliced out of sardine cans that fused the folkloric with erotic.

One thing that must be said about the complete body of Hall’s work is that she has mastered a dizzying array of mediums but never succumbed to the singular impact of sheer skill and facility. The erudition of her drawing and painting in works such as Brachychiton-Nanungguwa (2009–11) and the emotive heft of a sculpture such as Ringbark (2013) form a replete sailor’s knot between message and medium and yet aesthetics alone are not her mission.

Some of her best known artworks have operated in the realm of theatrical curiosity, fetish and meta-anthropology. Housed in bespoke vitrines, her clustered and hanging objects formed a contemporary interpretation of the Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) in the intricate and imposing Wrong Way Time (2012–2015) and the sheer tactility of this work was magnetic.

In Hall’s hands, context was itself a malleable entity, carving an ellipse that ran on a perpetual loop between black comedy and the deepest human error.

If the works she is best known for were ‘contained’ in various vessels, her new pieces have come into the round, perched in wheatfields, embedded beneath our feet, designed to be scattered openly across a gallery floor. The works that she has created this year, in one form or another, all address war. Unlike the conventional idea that a war artist visits a war zone and reports on it with reverent reserve, Hall’s proposition is that war is inevitable, globally simultaneous and as old as the species. Forced to look at her subject through the lens of different disciplines, many of her works arrive at an end point of inescapable futility and an obvious paradox, namely the fact that war has its own ecology (and burgeoning economy) yet not like the life cycle of a fragile species it never becomes extinct. There is no end to arms manufacture as an industry. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is always full.

Standing among the bottles, whose internal cracks she must strengthen with Araldite, Hall illustrates the seam she is always joining between substance, process and meaning: ‘I have to break the glass myself,’ she explains, ’because it has to be cleaved and shattered in such a way to make specific forms.’

In a very basic sense Hall is drawing with these raw edges and fault lines so all these lines have to be hers. The material and the method form the whole: ‘A lot of my work for a long time was indivisible between what it was made of and what it was. The substance itself carries the loading of the meaning and of the conceptualisation of the work so the substance is almost of equal importance to what I did with it. In some cases it is almost entirely equal in importance. The substance is the work and the work is the substance.’

This point could not be clearer in the major work she has just finished, created in close collaboration with architect Richard Johnson at the war memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park. As the artist selected for The Hall of Service, Hall’s submission made use of three primary materials, earth, metal and glass, to pay homage to the soldiers of NSW that served in the First World War.

Of all these materials the soil proved the most emotive and the entity most able to transcend boundaries of belief and culture. ‘Soil, to the Indigenous community, is sacred to the point where they were reluctant to give us any. Some of the soil also came from ground where battles were fought. Others died near the coasts of oceans in sea battles or beneath the clouds where warfare was aerial. Soil in war is the most potent symbol of the fallen. Yet logistically because there was little refrigeration on ships back then it was not possible for any of the soldiers who died in that war to be taken back to their communities for burial. There is a famous poem by Rupert Brooke (The Soldier), composed while he was serving on the Western Front in the First World War:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed …’

Putting the obvious nationalism of these words aside, Hall noted to me how notions of the earth as ‘home ground’ are common to so many. ‘For all cultures, soil becomes a marker of your origin. I come from a very left wing, pacifist, anti-war family and that is my sentiment certainly. But with this project I’ve paid attention more than I would otherwise to news items about the repatriation of remains, about the importance of history that lives inside the earth where people fell. Because they keep identifying the remains, soil is powerful. The concept is beyond being an artwork. It’s about the service given.’ The challenges of this commission were physical and ideological. On a recent visit to Napoleon’s tomb in Paris the artist was appalled by its extreme imperialism. ‘How’ she asked rhetorically ‘do you honour the fallen without glorifying the war?’ Perhaps it can be done in a structure that is deftly anti-monumental.

The Hall of Service (2018) has been designed as a contemplative and subtly layered experience, illuminated by an oculus: ‘I liked the idea of the space being utterly minimal. Of people walking in and feeling there is nothing there. Nothing three-dimensional and then it will dawn pretty bloody quickly that there is a hell of a lot there but we don’t know yet the pace at which people will experience the space. I wonder if international visitors will be struck by the 1701 place names of the towns where soldiers came from. Beautiful things like Firefly and Come by Chance, Wee Waa and Wee Jasper – these names are a litany of our postcolonial history with some names from western NSW, which are obviously phonetical English spellings of Aboriginal names. Within the names there are references to Indigenous Australia, the different cultural groups.’

Hall’s use of facts is never clinical or didactic. Dates. Numbers. Place names. All this data form the structures for her recent works but the result is not at all detached, if anything she uses concrete entities to enmesh the heart a little deeper into forgotten stories. ‘Conscription in Australia one hundred years ago’ she tells me, ‘was voluntary’. Another quiet obscenity of history.

Once in place, Hall’s installation will include hand-carved glass vessels and metal plates battered with a patina that looks pocked and worn with age, the obverse of a glittering medal.

It is rare that her work (outside museum collections) finds a permanent home. In France her piece for the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire will stand until late this year. All Along the Watchtowers (2018) extends the idea of beehives as sculptural entities. In 2010, Hall created a series of hives painted with camouflage and called the piece The Barbarians at the Gate (2010). If her titles sometimes sound like headlines for action flicks it’s a fleeting conceit. The camouflage chosen for the work in France belongs to each member of the European Union. The work is about Brexit, clearly, but also the notion of territory that seems feudal, almost primal.

In purely visual terms, camouflage patterns make excellent colour field paintings. Some look like congealed fat in blood. Others resemble the hides of feline hybrids. The beehives are topped with little fortresses and sit in a wheat field that is meant to evoke the origins of the castle as a battlement in 900. Hall accepted the commission when she read the way the castle was described. She says she was bemused by the words:

’Built in a time of trouble at the turn of the Millennium’. Because, when was the world NOT in trouble? Conflict as a continuum is a thread that links so much of Hall’s work, yet quite unlike the fatigue inspired by saturated news media, her work retains tension.

Beauty and intricate technical finesse, she admits herself, functions as ‘a lure’. Hers are works that you always want to step closer to, perhaps to interrogate and often to touch. Yet her conversation is one that so much art runs away from. The dirge of death. The howl of a planet in its dusk. Futility and imbalance. A heaving tide of plastics. All the broken things we leave in our trampled wake. These are her dark and foraged materials but the work is rarely claustrophobic or sealed into closure. I think instead, it serves to light the path back.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018

Fiona Hall: Afraid Cascade
6 – 28 March 2020
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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