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Ordering Chaos: Fiona Hall
When he described the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia as ‘… a learned and comprehensive work as full of variety as nature itself’, Pliny the Younger easily could have been speaking about Fiona Hall’s practice rather than one of her inspirations.1 ‘The Art of Fiona Hall’, and the monograph Fiona Hall present what curator and author Julie Ewington calls a ‘taking stock’2 of the artist’s considerable output to date, and both the survey exhibition and publication create compelling viewing and reading.
Hall, who came to prominence through her photography in the 1980s, is a remarkably diverse and ambitious artist, yet it is apparent that her core concerns have remained constant throughout her career. The exhibition presents works from her earlier photographic practice as well as the complex beaten, woven (if one could be said to weave a bird’s nest), knitted, carved and intricately beaded objects that have been the mainstay of the 1990s. Two new works, Understorey (1999–2004) and Tender (2003-05), have not been exhibited before. All of Hall’s work is dense with reference and engenders feelings of chaos; meanings frequently proliferate beyond the conceptual threads that should bind them, yet it is a chaos in perpetual tension with order.
A number of the photographic works included in the show, such as Divine Comedy (1988), Historia non-naturalis (1991) and The price is right series (1994), work together to give a sense of the artist’s move from photography to an object-based practice, providing a firm context for the rest of the show. The sculptural elements in the photographs anticipate works like Words (1990), or Paradisus Terrestris (1989-90) with their flat relief.
The sheer craftedness of Hall’s works is arresting. Consider a work like Scar Tissue (2003-04), with its glistening forms knitted from video tape, or the attention to detail required to weave many birds’ nests from shredded US currency in the specific size, shape and configuration fashioned by various birds (Tender). There is no doubt that Hall is interested in questions of labour and exchange, notions reinforced by her choice of materials—beads and soap both are connected with trade, and money is a medium in the literal sense of the word. The exchange between titles, concepts and objects is also integral to many of Hall’s works, and so it becomes impossible to reduce to craft alone, although that is certainly a strong element of its appeal.
Cash Crop (1998) comprises many natural objects in a display case. Carved from soap, they are neatly arranged on glass shelves above a lining of money. Painted with ghostly leaves, the layer of money could be seen as a simple cabinet lining, placed there to collect the debris as the objects decompose. Like the iconic Leaf Litter (1999-2003) (which also features gouache botanical painting on money) the work links tangible things; the carved seeds, fruits, nuts, vegetables, bark and spices, with the austere world of high finance. The labels associated with the objects: stock float, money laundering, stock market crash, net profit, thin trading, all indicate abstract financial movements, pure or ‘clean’ (remember the soap) when compared with the messy organic processing required to turn the majority of these plants into commodities. Yet the stock market also operates in cycles analogous with the natural world—stocks fall like decomposing leaves to the forest floor while traders use algorithms based on natural patterns, such as the Fibonacci sequence or the Golden Mean, in an effort to predict the market.
These themes used by Hall, notions of exchange, commodity and consumption, generate associations that have the potential to spiral out of control. Disorientation threatens. The viewer’s mind moves like a skipping stone across the arc of works on display. While pondering the meaning of a work like Cash Crop, thinking about the concept of exchange leads to money, money leads to value, value leads to questions of what is sacred, which may or may not lead back to money, plants, the objects themselves or perhaps an image of the Buddha. Ewington aptly employs TS Eliot to describe the potential for circularity when encountering Hall’s work: ‘…to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time’.3
Hall’s intentional evocation of a sense of museology, through the use of old fashioned display cabinets, vitrines, Latin classifications and referencing encyclopedia, highlights another predominant theme. The need to classify is a human response to overwhelming diversity. This can be seen in a work like Cell Culture (2001-02), where the connection between the variety of nature and the diversity of the consumable, both filling every available niche, is played out with humour and wit. The whimsy of a small white Tupperware container sprouting white beaded tines or a chicken’s foot is at the same time both appealing and incongruous.
Overall it is these contrary combinations—the mass produced and the natural, human and plant, order and chaos, that allow us to question and reflect on differences. Yet Hall’s work also encompasses the question. It is not just an opposition. Rather than offering the standard refusal or critique of what humans have wrought in the world, in Hall’s oeuvre there is always an underlying acknowledgment that the share market is part of nature as much as a nautilus shell, that money is just pieces of paper, albeit beautiful pieces of paper, and that the human relationship to technology does not divorce us or the technology from the natural world any more than a honeybee’s ability to create comb does it.
This ambiguous relationship with the complexity of life can be illustrated poignantly in The Social Fabric (1996), a larger than life photograph of the artist’s father, William Holman Hall. Nude, except for the enveloping mantle of knitted coke cans, we are not sure if he has grown to a vulnerable adulthood under this blanket of consumerism and knows no other way of being in the world (a reading supported by the coke can layette, Medicine bundle for the non-born child (1994), situated directly opposite the portrait, and the gentle treatment of the subject) or if he is a perpetrator of rampant capitalism, complicit in gathering shiny things to himself like a bower bird arranging its plundered loot. His expression is indeterminate, and yet his stance is one of strength—whatever the reading, the image says categorically ‘I am here’.
Like all complex systems, such a large body of work is impossible to make sense of in a gallery visit or two, which is where the monograph, Fiona Hall, is valuable. It has the scope to tease out the threads of what Hall has woven over thirty years of practice and to explore them thoroughly, while also putting the artist into a broader context.
While the show felt tight, compressing many works into an interesting, yet intense, dialogue, the book takes the time and space to elaborate on the ambiguities within Hall’s practice. Not exhaustively, but enough to make us aware of the depth of possible meaning at play behind these works. Although roughly chronological, the text does not proceed in a linear way; rather it comprises five thematic essays—’Seeing Meaning, Making Meaning’, ‘Chaos, Knowledge and Order’, ‘Sex and Gardening’, ‘Contemporary Vernaculars’ and ‘Serendipitous Intersections’. These essays, combined with the superb, high quality images, all serve to further illuminate Hall’s practice.
Several fascinating topics emerge: the effects of miniaturisation; the play between microcosm and macrocosm; and the tradition of the wunderkammer. One of the most satisfying elements of the book is the reproduction of the more explicit examples of Paradisus terrestris (1989-90). Given the Queensland Art Gallery’s major focus on children’s programming it is not surprising that they were not part of the exhibition, however these wonderful works with their erotic images of bodies stroked, licked and caressed are a vital example of the humour and intelligence of Hall’s work. The multiple registers of plant, body and text can certainly be seen in the works that were included, their encased miniature human forms glimpsed through the ‘blind’ of a sardine can topped with delicately crafted metal plants and precisely labeled with both Latin and common names, and in the case of Paradisus terrestris entitled (1996 and 1999) indigenous names also. Nevertheless, the energy and pure punch of works like Dionaea muscipula / Venus fly-trap (a view of female genitals from the rear accompanied by an exploring finger, and the carnivorous plant above) or Narcissus x odorus / daffodil, (an image of male masturbation topped with a daffodil) was tangible enough to make me laugh out loud.
Ewington’s fondness for the artist is apparent throughout the book. However her voice alternates between the informal, suggesting an easy relationship with the artist, and the dispassionate, suggesting the position of critic or academic making astute observations, sometimes shifting tone within the same paragraph. This was not a major issue because the content was sufficiently engaging, however it was a little disconcerting. Not quite a guided tour through Hall’s mind, Fiona Hall is a solid and compelling analysis of the artist and her practice. Hall’s work is captivating—thoughtful, even philosophical at times, ambiguous, strikingly relevant, meticulous, obsessive—everything good art should be.
1. Pliny the Younger, The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1969. p.88.
2. Julie Ewington, Fiona Hall. Piper Press, Sydney, 2005, p.23.
3. ibid., p.96.