Cash Crop: Fiona Hall

Sharemarket Slump (Abelmoschus eskulentus okra) • Trade Barrier (Acacia Senegal gum Arabic) • Emerging Market (Agaricus bisporus mushroom) • Debt Default (Allium cepa onion) • Negative Gearing (Aloe Vera aloe) • Tax Minimisation (Anarcardium occidentale cashew) • Consumer Confidence (Annona cherimola custard apple) • Tax Return (Arachis hypogaea peanut) • Number Crunching (Areca catechu betel nut) • Security Trust (Arlocarpus altilis breadfruit) • Offshore Trading (Ascophyllum nodosum seaweed) • Compound Interest (Azadirachta indica neem) • Bracket Creeping (Bambusa tuldoides bamboo) • Budget Deficit (Brassica oleracea cabbage) • Insider Trading (Capparis spinosa caper) • Market Volatility (Capsicum annunm chilli) • Stockmarket Crash (Ceiba pentandra kapok) • Tax Reform (Citrus limon lemon) • Rescue Package (cocos nucifera coconut) • Consumption Level (Coffea arabica coffee) • Global Liquidity (Cola acuminata cola nut)

Economic ...

“Money doesn't grow on trees!”– the classic injunction of Australian parents. In the child’s imagination the tree is magically transformed, each leaf now a crisp new note, fluttering in the expectant breeze. Thus are revealed truths that negation sought to disavow: the economic value of agricultural produce, a theme still central to the Australian national imaginary; worse, the inexorable nexus between cash and desire. With her new hybrid Fiona Hall has made your infant dreams come true.

In the financial pages of the daily newspapers, an arcane language governs the grand movements of international cash. It has its own elaborate terminological codes which must be learned if the arguments and insights of the specialists are to be appreciated. These complex languages, these insider codes, are shorthand evidence of elaborated paradigms which carry great authority, governing contemporary economics, financial activity, and ultimately government policy. On their impersonal efficacy rests the fate of nations. A question is begged: is economics a science – even if an inexact one – or merely a descriptive technology? As the merits of the J-Curve are debated in tough talk, fortunes are made and lost and entire populations drift into destitution.

The complexity of these professional languages seems oddly remote from the pathetic flow of notes in and out of the daily purse and their baldly assertive jargon claims power over personal life while excluding the subjects of its analyses from the discourse. Yet the source of this financial language is often the daily experience of economic activity and it has its own wild and bitter humour. A woman out of work lives the deadpan comedy of “downsizing”; the trader with rotting produce sniffs the wind of “market volatility”; young unemployed use their leisure to appreciate the true meaning of “economic rationalism”. Euphemism and hyperbole rub shoulders in descriptive conjunction: “gift tax” is a short answer to good fortune, “flexible loan” the official expression of a life sentence, and “consumer confidence” a triumph of paradox.

Fiona Hall has chosen more than seventy terms from the contemporary lexicons of economic activity. She notes that many relate to water – “liquid asset”, “sharemarket float”, “frozen asset”, “double dipping”, “global liquidity”, “offshore trading”– both in its aspect as a natural resource for agriculture and in its oceanic role as the site of trade. Trade is flux: change is the only constant in it. World economic systems mutate and crops and destinations change, but trading produce is as crucial in the contemporary world as it was in ancient empires. This ceaseless, proliferating activity, rooted in a thousand cultures and customs and millions of unpredictable daily decisions, is what the language of modern economists attempts to describe as a system. (What bitter medicine!)

Botany ...

In the complex historical systems of world trade, knowledge of plants and crops has always been crucial, at home and abroad. The Linnean classification of living things by genus and species, developed in Europe in the eighteenth century and since exported to the rest of the world, is reproduced here together with indigenous and English common names of plants used for crops.[1] Botanical classification is an aspect of the encyclopaedic urge of Western intellectuals and collecting is its practical expression. Indeed, the practical uses of plants were not the main interest of exploring botanists: they simply aimed to classify and to collect the world and all that grew on it, however large or small. Now, two centuries later, local knowledges and nomenclatures have gradually become superseded by one universal botanical language. Botany is thus not only an aspect of Western systems of knowledge, but a crucial tool of the modern development of world markets and economic institutions ruled by the West.

Fiona Hall’s Cash Crop is the latest in a long series of systematic projects in botanical collecting.[2] In the eighteenth century, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks (for whom Botany Bay was named) created elaborate cabinets for the exploration voyages of James Cook, in which numerous specimens of plants were placed and taken back to England, studied, dissected, analysed and planted. Later the economic uses of collected plants were investigated, for medicine, cosmetics, prophylactics and profit. Significantly, many women have played an important role in the development of botany and of gardening. In medieval times women were herbalists for cooking and for health; from the Renaissance onwards women artists have been amongst the most distinguished of botanical illustrators; and even into this century botany was considered a branch of science appropriate to feminine interests, like gardening and other forms of cultivation and caring.

In this present age of environmental disaster, the traditional alliance of women’s culture with botany is bearing new fruit in science, politics and the arts. In one sense, then, Fiona Hall is cashing in here on old crops of knowledge.

Slips ...

In Cash Crop, Fiona Hall has selectively emphasised the tendency towards conjoined terms in systems of Western classification. This is not a merely whimsical rubbing together of similarities, differences, binaries: it is a purposeful play between different orders of things, set up to embrace and to pull apart, to slip and to slide. Each term is descriptive in a particular way within its own code, whether the Linnaean botanical classification or the financial languages of the markets and the press. Put the two codes of classification together and altogether richer plays of meaning commence, which flutter up and double back upon each other.

This is exactly analogous to the specimen books of botanical collectors, where flowers and leaves were pressed between the pages. The two linguistic codes are made to flatter, mock and interrogate each other (and us); the designs of banknotes reveal a widespread awareness that notes are the currency of exchange, that they trade in plants typical of that country, in international waters; and Hall’s paintings on the surfaces of the notes dramatise the actual moment of transubstantiation, where paper becomes value, and crops are converted into cash.

Soap, too, is made of vegetable products from diverse origins, from oils, grasses, and perfumes distilled from flowers. All these plant elements are boiled down and their original properties converted into an anonymous international emulsion. This has its positive aspects: one is washed clean and clothes cleansed of impurities. On the other hand, one may assume an innocent air of purity which is questionable (just as money is “laundered”). Sometimes this “internationalisation” is distinctly predatory: recently an American company sought permission under GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) to patent the genetic material of the Indian neem tree and to render illegal its traditional uses as a natural antiseptic and pesticide.

Soap is the slippery substance par excellence – the soft soap of confidence men – sliding away from the fingertips, waiting to trip you on the tiled floor. In the chainstores of international commerce are found moulded soaps: flowers with strange scents, elephants, a tiny Sydney Opera House. Their apparent solidity is illusory, for they will be destroyed by water. Fiona Hall’s soap carrot, ginkgo, rice and breadfruit will survive in their glass cases, but they are equally the product of artifice. Nothing is simply natural.


Base Funding (Colocasia esculenta taro) • Gift Tax (Commiphora myrrha myrrh) •  Hedge Fund (Corylus avellana hazelnut) • Stock Exchange (Crescentia cujeta calabash) • Gold Index (Crocus sativus saffron) • Incentive Scheme (Daucus carota carrot) • Lump Sum (Dioscorea alata yam) • Black Economy (Diospyros ebenum ebony) • Financial Gearing (Elaeis guineensis oil palm) • Risk Factor (Erythroxylum coca coca leaf) • Liquid Stock (Eucalyptus dives eucalyptus) • Net Profit (Fragaria xananassa strawberry) • Capital Investment (Garcinia mangostana mangosteen) • Asset Management (Gingko biloba gingko) • Fiscal Year (Glycine max soybean) • Commodity Currency (Gossypium hirsutum cotton) • Flexible Loan (Hevea brasiliensis rubber) • Corporate Community (Jubaea chilensis wine palm) • Hard Currency (Juglans regia walnut) • Liquidity Squeeze (Luffa cylindrica loofah)

Footnotes

  1. ^ Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné), 1707–78, was a Swedish botanist who established the binomial system of nomenclature.
  2. ^ Those plants have been chosen with the assistance of a text in the Library of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Dictionary of Economic Plants, by J.C. Th. Uphof, 2nd edition, revised and enlarged, New York: Stechert-Hafner, 1968. 

Julie Ewington is Curator, Australian Art, at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.