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Fiona Hall: Reflecting the world and hoping to change it

Jul 15, 2015
Photo by Angus Mordant

In her ambitious installation for the Venice Biennale, Wrong Way Time, Fiona Hall brings together hundreds of disparate elements which find alignments and create tensions around three intersecting concerns: global politics, world finances and the environment.

The ideas that underpin her work accord with those of writers in many fields who say anthropocentrism is coming to an end, who see nature as a nexus of references or an “ecology of objects”, and draw on so-called primitive beliefs in animism, the agency of non-living things, and sympathetic magic.

Her seemingly random conjunction of things in a wunderkammer-like installation appeals to our human impulse to make connections and see relationships, or perhaps to a paranoia born of the deep uncertainty and fear of our times. Yet despite the prevalent darkness — the gallery and cabinets are as black as her subject — her exhibition is fundamentally life-affirming, its own vitality in perverse distinction to the subjects it ranges across, which provide rich pickings for Hall’s extraordinary transformation of materials, images, and objects.

Hall has an almost electrical sensitivity to currents in our world, an alertness to the not-quite-dead things that register histories and presage the future, coupled with an ability to create objects by hand with such dexterity and mimetic acuity that, through the revivifying power of representation, they might redirect time the right way.

The exhibition is in part a compendium of the ashes of modernity, a residue literally represented by charred cabinets and encyclopedias that act as plinths for several works. Material about to be consigned to history abounds — cash, clocks, newspapers, coal: the detritus of a capitalist world that thrives on redundancy. But her work’s more profound subject is the casualties of the living. Drawing upon age-old iconography, she piles up the skeletons, skulls, and other remains; repetition and open sequences defer disaster and make us see our fear of the end.

Two large groupings in the installation are All the King’s Men and Wrong Way Time. Hall conceived All the King’s Men as “a field of free-hanging, three-dimensional heads — some figurative, some contorted into other states of being, or not being” — knitted from camouflage garments from many militaries, “signifiers of the prevalence and omnipresence of warring forces”.

An intense, compacted energy characterises the ghoulish heads of All the King’s Men, knitted forms over wire armatures that were painful to make. Some heads are riven with sharp deer horns or are glassed; all have missing or distorted features. The faces are masks, life solidified into empty shells that we look through or that look at us. No longer foot soldiers but grief objects or spirit figures, they are made over and over in a kind of incantation or petition.

These figures are not so much about the horror of war as of it. In this field of war, camouflage both conceals and dazzles: conceals in that different camouflage patterns mimic each other as much as they do varying terrains, uniting the figures and their militaries (Iraq, Ukraine, Russia, Sri Lanka, Australia, Germany, Estonia, France, and Italy) in a variegated vegetal and animal field; dazzles in the magical power of its transformation and the remarkable energy of its making.

Another major component of the exhibition is a large group of clocks, Wrong Way Time, painted with images and texts on the installation’s interlinked themes. It forms a wall of lament and animates the entire space with sound — an audio luminosity to match the beautifully lit cabinet of curiosities alongside. The sound is composed of resonant and melodious chimes on the hour, and parts thereof; the raucous sounds of cuckoo clocks; and recordings of crows that introduce a sense of space as their caws diminish.

Masking the glass face of the title clock Wrong Way Time, a red U-turn painted anticlockwise over the growth rings of a tree conveys Fiona’s feeling that we seem to be going backwards. As an index of past time, the log’s rings also reveal a future literally lopped off. This metaphor extends into allegory as Fiona replicates media images, such as those of the Islamic State propaganda video from September 2014 depicting the beheading of a journalist. The masked assassin appears on several clocks, joining a graveyard of painted skulls and skeletons, dramatised by the resemblance of the long-case clocks to coffins and the circular faces of mantle clocks to disembodied heads. They stand like so many memorial totems — not dissimilar to the hollow log coffins of The Aboriginal Memorial (1988) at the National Gallery of Australia — and in a typical overlaying they memorialise the analog clock itself.

Some clocks are painted with texts that have the directness and incantatory quality of protest signs or graffiti. Their sense of urgency is heightened by the contrast of the texts with the sober, bourgeois objects they are painted on.

Hall’s crude, handwritten capitals press the point amid the rows of tally marks counting the dead, coiled barbed wire, felled logs, skulls, and skeletons: COUNTING FOR NOTHING, NO MAN’S LAND, UNLUCKY STRIKE, WRONG WAY TIME, MELTDOWNS, ZERO HOURS. Curiously, clocks have no zero, so keep the ultimate end at bay. Their passing regular beat is set against the cumulative and random events of history; as Hall says, “it just goes on”. The resonant chimes of floor and mantle clocks offer a strange calm and certainty, but the cuckoos and caws unsettle as much as the images, evoking the sense that time is running out.

Conceived as a single work, Wrong Way Time contains a mind-boggling array of objects: found, constructed, cast, woven, and knitted; natural, handmade, and hi-tech. Many form extended sequences. There are sardine tins fashioned into delicate sculptures of plants, figures and endangered marine creatures; skulls painted on empty perfume bottles and a mobile phone; bread sculptures on atlases; lead sculptures of potatoes morphing into Platonic solids, or acting as bases for a strange array of votive offerings, from a credit card to a shellfish carapace; and a bronze tree cast from toilet rolls.

There is also a video of a spider in a Chinese cork-landscape diorama and real spiders weaving webs around a collection of such dioramas; a painting on tapa cloth; metal car badges; zoomorphic and phallic driftwood; a central group of knitted heads and figures made from camouflage garments, bones, teeth, and dice; dozens of clocks painted with texts and images of war and finance; a kaleidoscopic peepshow, Hack, focusing on the world of Rupert Murdoch; a bifurcated bronze brain; economically valuable plants and isobars of sperm drawn across banknotes; further collections of banknotes sporting images of tractors, dams, and oil rigs; endangered animals, devils, feral cats, and flying machines woven from camouflage fabric and dried desert grasses; lists of plant taxonomies and banknote serial numbers; wasps’ nests; a huge lump of coal; and more.

These list detail the small, and often exquisitely beautiful, parts of a bigger picture. In the abstract the whole is impossible to take in, let alone decipher. Excessive and obsessive, this constructed world is one that can only be experienced. Though Hall is interested in classificatory systems, she doesn’t impose one, instead allowing the sights, sounds and smells to elicit discoveries where they will.

Throughout Wrong Way Time, clusters of objects, images and words — each element of which has its genesis in a particular political event or personal experience that could be unravelled in detail — point to the way we objectify and manipulate nature or to the reality of our own animal nature.

Hall’s work aligns with the views of those who approach non-human environments through what is now called a “relational” stance. It is ecological and future-oriented; everything is interconnected — words and actions here have repercussions there.

Both warning and inspiration, Hall’s proliferating display paradoxically wills a future of restraint and austerity rather than growth, one in which we take account of our entanglements with a diversity of other beings.

Abridged and edited from Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time by Linda Michael (editor), published  by Piper Press and the Australia Council for the Arts, $39.95.  
Linda Michael is the curator of Wrong Way Time at the Venice Biennale, May 9 to November 22.

Image credit: Angus Mordant