Fiona Hall, Moat, 2011, Tongan ngatu dye and ochre on barkcloth. Courtney the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

A carrion call: Fiona Hall, searider in the Kermadec Trench

The Māori creation story for Aotearoa New Zealand is that the demigod Maui fished up the North Island from deep in the sea. After a miraculous birth and upbringing Maui won the affection of his supernatural parents, taught useful arts to people, snared the sun and tamed fire. But one of his most famous feats was fishing up the North Island.

So the North Island is known to Māori as Te Ika a Maui or Maui’s fish. If you look at a map of New Zealand you can see the fish’s tail flicking up into the Pacific Ocean. Moving north from its eastern tip you travel along the Kermadec Trench, stretching between New Zealand and Tonga, which incorporates the subtropical island arc of the Kermadec Islands, a little-known region (barely visible on most maps) of the volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire. The 2,500 kilometre-long Kermadec Trench is more than ten kilometres deep and alive with a mixture of tropical and temperate, rare and common species of fish, crustaceans, turtles and other seabeasts. The National Geographic calls it one of the “last pristine sites left in the ocean.”

The Kermadec Trench is an oceanic asset that could potentially be worth billions of dollars to mining and fishing industries. Hydrothermal vents two kilometres below sea level shoot mineral rich streams of zinc, lead, copper and gold into the ocean. Conservation groups are campaigning for the area to be listed as a World Heritage Site, extending the current marine reserve to cover the 620,000 square kilometres, which would make it the largest ocean sanctuary in the world.

And on 8 October 2013, Green Party MP Gareth Hughes introduced a private member’s bill to the New Zealand Parliament calling for the creation of a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. In May 2011 the Pew Environmental Group’s Global Ocean Legacy arranged for eight prominent artists from New Zealand—Bruce Foster, Elizabeth Thomson, Jason O’Hara, Robin White, Gregory O’Brien, John Pule, John Reynolds, Phil Dadson, and one from Australia—Fiona Hall, to travel by navy frigate HMNZS Otago up to remote Raoul Island at the north end of the Kermadecs and beyond to Tonga in an effort to raise the profile of the area.

In March to July 2013 at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne the works made by Fiona Hall in response to her time as a searider (the naval term for non-naval personnel on a navy boat) were shown, along with other works made by Hall over the last few years, in Big Game Hunting curated by Kendrah Morgan. The works on show included Hall’s camouflage-painted beehives The Barbarians at the Gate made for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, in 2010, and the extraordinary trophy animals of Fall Prey made for dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012.

Fiona Hall, Pan troglodytes/chimpanzee, Equatorial Africa, 2012, Belgian military camouflage jacket (worn in Belgian Congo), wire, aluminium, plastic, nails, Blackberry, glass beads. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Fall Prey is an intense memorial to a selection of endangered animals on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list. The works possess great passion and ferocious “outsider art” energy. The hunting trophies are made from the ripped and knotted camouflage army uniforms of each nation that the animals live in. Their ears and noses are flattened and beaten recycled metal cans, and they are draped and punctuated with the flotsam and jetsam of culture and waste. The chimpanzee from equatorial Africa has an aluminium can ring-pull for an ear to remind you of the human-made garbage littering the world.

“Mother fucker” reads the sign, partly beaded and partly made from a can of the “macho” soft drink Mother hanging beneath the chest of the Californian condor whose head and neck are made from Coke cans, Budweiser beer caps, and whose wings are torn from US desert camouflage fabric. When it was installed at dOCUMENTA(13) in a claustrophobic hunting lodge in the Baroque Karlsaue Park, originally designed in 1570 as a pleasure garden, Fall Prey was like a blast of contemporary lightning.

This ferocity has entered Hall’s Kermadec works that (unusually for her) are not elaborately constructed or intensely fabricated over many hours but painted fairly rapidly and loosely. Hall is not known as a painter though she will do whatever she needs to do when the occasion demands it. While in Tonga she took up the offer of lessons in painting on barkcloth. And decided to make several large works about the situation of the Kermadecs in the medium.

Fiona Hall, Bowline on a Bight, 2011, Tongan ngatu dye and ochre on barkcloth, aluminium. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney 

To some viewers there is necessarily a sense of transgression in this work. Barkcloth, made by beating the bark of the mulberry tree into something flat, fabric-like and receptive to dyes (traditionally brown and black, made from treebark) is organic, contains texture and a life of its own, and, of course, a traditional provenance. In his essay in the Big Game Hunting catalogue, fellow searider to the Kermadecs, Gregory O’Brien describes the many functions of barkcloth: “bedspread, veil, bodily covering, flag, history lesson, map/chart or even shroud.”[1]

Did Hall need permission to use these traditional materials? Does her transgression reflect the urgency of the “carrion call, sounding the siren in a dying wilderness”[2] being made by Hall as well as the completely ununutterable (and terrible) global transgressive insult of the potential invasion of mining into the Kermadecs? In Tonga ngatu (painted barkcloth) is a part of everyday life, of connection to ancestors and the environment, of respect and tradition, and also inescapably of the richness, urgency and necessity of innovation, storytelling and responding to change. Synonymous with the Pacific, with centuries lived by the sea, as a medium painted barkcloth possesses immense gravitas.

Hall stumbles in amongst these traditions with her conviction, her emotions and her beliefs–and her courage. Hall is not concerned that her compositions, her designs, are not fully resolved and awkward; the urgency of her cause precludes such niceties. There is a powerful raw emotionality palpable in these banner-like works. I read in the first wall text at Heide of Hall’s self-declared carrion call and first thought that this is a misprint she means clarion call, but then I understood. The artist makes her work in palpable tears at the thought of both current loss and potential destruction. And the tears weigh heavily.

In many previous works Hall has dwelled upon environmental degradation with nothing but pain in her heart. Her 1999 work Dead in the Water with its intricate combination of glass beads, silver wire and perforated plumbing pipe spoke of the heaving masses of discarded plastic creating havoc at sea as well as the glorious and infinite complexity of the marine environment. Because we are all related it is ourselves we are destroying …

And finally, in the artist’s own words: “At the top of the Trench swim the top predators of the deep; whales and sharks. And now, although nowhere (as yet) visible to the eye, other subversive life (or death) forms are circling in the water: fishing and mining interests. The ocean is not quiet; new hunts are on, greedy for a kill. New breeds of corporate pirates have their spyglasses trained on the Kermadec treasure chest below. To them, it looks like a submerged bank vault: the volcano teeth have gold fillings. Lying in the sunlight on the deck on the surface of the sea, I shut my eyes to picture the volcanoes. Blood flows. Behind my eyelids I saw red.”[3]


  1. ^ Gregory O’Brien, ‘Days of Paperbark and Sail: Fiona Hall in the Kermadecs’, in Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013, p55.
  2. ^ Kendrah Morgan, Introduction, Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013. See Footnote 26, p20.
  3. ^

Stephanie Radok is an author, scholar, artist and Senior Editor with Artlink.