Trade: Fiona Hall

Botany meets metal.
Metal meets knitting.
Knitting meets videotape.
Videotape meets soap.
Soap meets money.
Money meets botany.

The complex, ingenious, labour-intensive artworks made by Fiona Hall arouse great wonder, delight, incredulity and thoughtfulness in the viewer. The various bodies of her work create a Wunderkammer for the late twentieth- and early twenty-first century. Hall used the recycled metal from aluminium drink cans as significant global evidence of throwaway consumerist detritus in the late 1980s when she began to cut, arrange and re-photograph the resultant forms as elaborate tableaux. From the beginning, the metal had a special eloquence: in a photograph it is grey, but a reflective grey, with a lustre and depth almost like skin.

Hall responded to this quality by representing many human bodies in a series of photographic works on Dante’s Purgatory, Hell and Paradise (1988–89) and for another project entitled Words (1990) in which metal bodies spelled out sentences around the gallery walls. In 1990 in the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art she showed the first in the series Paradisus Terrestris (1996), made from aluminium sardine tins which fold out to incorporate the sexual parts of people and plants, also referencing the elaborate silver filigree table decorations of the nineteenth century and an earthly fecundity that Jonathan Holmes has called “ecstatic reverie”.[1]

Then in Biodata at the Adelaide Festival in 1994, Hall showed a most extraordinary piece, an audacious watershed work, in which the artist’s labour, political analysis and black humour were intently wound together. In Medicine Bundle for the non-born Child (1993) Hall knitted a matinee jacket, bonnet and bootees, and made a rattle/teething ring from thin metal strips cut from Coke cans. A six-pack of Coke cans onto which rubber nipples had been attached completes the work. Coca-Cola, which originated in the traditional drugs of the South American cocoa leaf and the African cola nut, is used as an post-coital contraceptive douche in Third World countries.

The artist had always dealt with big questions but this work confronted the contemporary world head-on. The matinee set, a series of garments for Baby which reference the making of a nest for a child, the wrapping of it in warmth and love, is here transposed to the harsh Realpolitik of the market, the commodity and the trademark; world domination and cultural imperialism following close behind. Corruption, betrayal, sorrow and longing, the devaluing and cheapness of human life underscore this work through the careful making by hand of these cold harsh garments.

Hall takes her role as an artist very seriously and is deeply concerned with the state of the world and our human responsibility. The issue of trade is critical, both in terms of globalisation and in more broadly symbolic terms, replicated by the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York as I write these words. Trade between “developed” and “developing'” parts of the world, Third Worlds and First Worlds, colonial and post-colonial intertwined histories raise questions of justice, destiny and survival. These threads, which tie together many streams of human thought and inquiry, knowledge and politics, come up again and again in Hall’s works.

Hall’s work is rich and deep in its highly developed historical consciousness. Trade is also the territory of an artist like Yinke Shonibare whose work uses colonial histories of textiles and ceramics and thus: “contributes to the opening out of subtlety on questions of critique and imaginative projection.”[2] Narelle Jubelin’s work also taps into these fertile and subterranean veins of mingled power, culture and history to: “invoke a series of narratives and counter-narratives about imperialism, patriarchy and the world commerce of cultural artefacts.”[3]

In Australia post-colonialism is a lived condition rather than a theory. The post-colonial condition involves a strong awareness of history. To be post-colonial is not to see the world in terms of a One and an Other. It is to be aware of the convoluted stories and events of history and thus to describe ways of seeing things that do not belong to you not as “Other” but as “another”, thus to see and understand them as an addition, an accompaniment, a variation. It is to acknowledge that there are many histories of the world and that they interlock and overlock like threads in sewing. Post-colonialism is opposed to post-modernism because it builds meaning with complexity rather than emptying meaning.

In Occupied Territory (1995), commissioned to coincide with the opening of the Museum of Sydney, Hall uses for her material – beads, wire, nails – the materials which were brought to the “New World” as trade items: cheap stuff that it was hoped would fascinate and buy the co-operation of native peoples, on their land. Hall has made eight arcane and mysterious objects, echoes of fetish items or evening dresses or bags. They are representations of the fruits and seeds of trees, indigenous and non-indigenous, growing in the grounds of the first Government House in Sydney in the early nineteenth century – a fig, a pear, an angophora, an acacia, an oak, a banksia, a peach and a Norfolk Island Pine Tree.

These objects amaze with their ingenuity, combined with a certain handmade awkwardness that makes them objects of finesse but never only objects of skill. They are fabrications as much as representations. Their agenda of memorialising the items present at the moment of colonial encounters, taking the material languages of fruit and bead, nail and seed, and literally embodying them and elements of their histories, involves the creation of artworks that speak with complex and poignant voices. They render beauty, belief, history, materiality, differing interpretations of the same objects, intangible qualities like hope ...

For Give a Dog a Bone, a work shown at the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial, Hall knitted a huge cape of metal strips from Coke cans, placed it on her naked father’s shoulders and photographed him like a pale pink Polynesian god. Then she filled a wall of cardboard boxes behind him with objects carved from soap. Cardboard boxes, storage containers, travelling emissars, potential refuges for the homeless, are expressive objects. Soap, while a valuable commodity among the homeless, was something unknown and unneeded in the Pacific until after colonisation.

In the 1997 Australian Perspecta Hall suspended a large number of body parts, heads and limbs, knitted from videotape in a work entitled Slash and Burn. Moving in the air currents created by viewers, linked to and bobbing over videotapes of films about war in the Pacific the works brought together the twentieth-century medium of film with older narratives of encounter. In this knitting of videotape, the making of a body from a movie, a material structure with connotations of magic, is entwined a complex series of metaphors for knowledge, meaning and entertainment. As cargo cult, ghost dance and love magic, to increase the sense of ceremony, the work touches on the subtle chords of art as something kinesthetic, located within the bones. They also take us to the territory explored by historians such as Greg Dening who writes experientially grounded narratives from the history of the Pacific, post-colonial stories that bring together our present experience with historical moments of encounter and rupture. Was it the god Lono who was mistaken for Captain Cook or Captain Cook who was mistaken for him?

The human body, its physicality, materiality and eroticism, is very strong in Hall’s work through her exceptional and excruciating methods of construction, as well as in her subject matter which is never disembodied, never abstract but always grounded in physicality. The artist’s hands are ever present. (I sometimes imagine them covered in cuts from all the sharp edges of metal that she has used.)

Hall likes codes and systems, the forms and patterns of knowledge, she likes to study the way that learning has been constructed and formed. She sees parallels in the human and botanic worlds, and exploits them with firm erotic intent. The intricate Paradisus Terrestris was begun in 1988 and has continued in several series since: Paradisus Entitled refers to Aboriginal prior occupation of Australia; the Paradisus Terretris subset have been made since Hall has undertaken residencies in Sri Lanka. Human welfare is closely tied to that of plants, botanical journeys around the globe mark and are marked by human history.

Hall’s aluminium plant forms, which arise out of opened sardine tins use only the surface area of metal in the area unwound by the key. The sheer heart-rending beauty of these works is almost accidental, or certainly incidental to their purposeful juxtaposition of bodies and plants but no less delightful and astonishing for that. To observe the lift of a certain leaf, the curve of a buttock or fruit, the fringe of a flower is to sense the generative energy of the world. It is also to feel, with renewed passion that, in Dylan Thomas' words: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age.”

The intensity of Hall's making is never about craft, in the sense of serving a tradition or skill; rather, there is a sense that she invents ways of doing things, of combining materials and techniques in order to strike the viewer with a freshness, an exclamation of wonder that will make them see afresh the combinations and juxtapositions of material and intellectual languages that she combines. Her soap carvings for Cash Crop (1998), carvings that can be worn away by water, carvings that are fragrant with soap scents, juxtapose seeds with terms from the worlds of trade and finance.

Incontinent (1997), a work made for the Canberra-based project Archives and the Everyday, includes plumbing pipes under a desk, a facsimile of the desk used by Queen Victoria to sign the Commission of Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill in 1900. The plastic pipes are exuberantly pierced by holes, which form tendrils and twists of decorative designs thus making the pipe beautiful and, clearly, leaky.

Hall’s most recent ecologically charged work involves the painting of life-size leaves on pieces of paper money. An insistent, insinuating beauty persists in the study of plants, in botany, in the works of nature. In 1859 John Ruskin wrote: “If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world.” This remark by Ruskin was chosen by Bernard Smith to close his remarkable book European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) which suggested that in Australia the basis of non-Aboriginal art has always been an encounter between an empirical scientific vision and a strangeness.

This strangeness has become incorporated into that vision, but changes it irrevocably and continuously. Hall’s leaves in Leaf Litter are painted on the currency of the place in which they are found, thus human and plant history are conjoined in these monochromatic works which hark back to both the human and the plant bodies that she has previously cut from metal. The silver gelatine grey scale of black and white photography, of a world seen not in black and white but in multiple greys, with all the lustre and subtle variations of skin tones is also metallic. Plant skin, human skin, history and trade, migration and diaspora – the scattering of seeds, weeds and human cultures – are here brought together in artworks which entwine the human and the non-human to demonstrate that no separation is possible or, indeed, desirable.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Jonathan Holmes, "Fiona Hall: Garden of Earthly Delights", Contemporary Art Tasmania, no. 5, Spring/Summer 1994, Hobart, p. 19.
  2. ^ Bernice Murphy, "Pictura Britannica: Scenes, fictions and constructions in contemporary British art," Pictura Britannica, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1997, p. 29.
  3. ^ Ian Burn, "The metropolis is only half the horizon", The Boundary Rider: 9th Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1992, p. 32.
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