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Fiona Hall is a dedicated gardener. During the past year, this central part of her life also has become a key aspect of her work as an artist, with gardens commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra. For several years this strong personal interest in plants also has been reflected in the better known areas of her work, for example the photographic series Historia non-naturalis 1992, and more recently in the small paintings and soap carvings of the Cash Crop exhibition shown at the Institute of Modern Art. This body of work was produced during a residency at the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Mount Coot-tha, as part of the Volt program of the Brisbane Festival.
The new work is, to a large extent, a re-invented taxonomy of plants. The language of money was used to identify the facsimiles of fruits, tubers and seeds carved in pastel coloured soap, and the white paintings of leaves on bank notes. As well as the scientific, botanical names and the common, popular names, a third naming system was applied, using such money market terms as Liquid Asset (for the grape), Deal Sweetener (for sugar) and Sharemarket Float (for the lotus). There is a humorous, punning, connection between these names and what they describe, but the reality of the natural world being controlled by the financial world is the serious purpose behind this eccentric nomenclature.
Because of the delicate appearance of the objects, and the way they were displayed like sacred relics in glass cases in a darkened room, Cash Crop gave the impression of being something like a shrine to nature. Fiona Hall's respectful regard and deep affection for the plant world extends to concerns about the violation of species. She denies taking the role of an orthodox greenie, but brings such grave intensity to making art about vegetable life-forms, that viewers are inclined to read these works in simple eco-political terms. The risk of extinction and the interference of genetic engineering have made nature seem vulnerable, a notion that would have had very little bearing on the way it was viewed in earlier centuries (despite the fact that the history of these threats goes back thousands of years). In the imagination of Western societies, nature has evolved from being a mighty force, revered by the Romantic movement, to being a kind of abandoned victim, for which we feel a certain nostalgia. This remoteness from the natural world has made it difficult for artists to create art that is an authentic expression of it.
The work of Fiona Hall is an important exception to this. It is virtually impossible today for any intelligent artist to pretend to be innocent of the political or cultural factors that play a part in their subject matter, and Hall is certainly a politically aware artist. As an expose of the manipulation and exploitation by the First World of Third World economies, her work is as engaged as the angriest art made in this country, with an added poignancy. Yet perhaps the more fertile context in which to situate this current exhibition is within the tradition of art about nature, rather than the hot-house climate of contemporary cultural/social/political critique. Her objective and carefully mediated discourse on how global agribusiness affects human life is inseparable from an acute and distinctive sensitivity to the way it affects plants. This is not a tender-hearted concern about vegetable welfare, although for most of us it may be difficult to grasp such an idea in any other terms. It has more to do with a reverential vision of the planet's complex botanical order. Many bodies of work by Fiona Hall have been based on an abiding interest in structured systems-in science, in literature, even in morality (her first works to gain national prominence classified the seven deadly sins). The world's plants are collectively, perhaps the most spectacular example of this kind of system, and her close attention to its elaborate interconnectedness seems to have much in common with the nineteenth-century artist's awed response to nature. The integrity of this system is essentially what ecologists are committed to preserving, and while Fiona Hall shares the same concerns, her approach to the vast pattern of plant species transcends the practicality of an ideological cause. it is the system itself, not its external ramifications, that is the real subject of her work. Despite the fact that the individual details are so tiny, (sometimes, in the case of Cash Crop, as tiny as a grain of rice) it seems to be an appreciation of the immensity of scale, as in Von Guerard's view from Mt Kosciuosko or Piguenit's view of the Darling River in flood, that motivated the work in this exhibition.