Recently I’d been thinking about significant contemporary Australian artists and concluded that Fiona Hall is at the top of my list.
That visit was also the first time I heard a line often uttered at art galleries, “I could’ve done that.” It was a fellow student evaluating the colour cut-outs Matisse made late in his career and Karen was quick to rebuke, “Yeah but you didn’t.”
Karen’s line comes to mind often, as the prompt for the series of thoughts about the most significant contemporary Australian artist came via work that often leads me to think ‘I could’ve done that’ and then conclude ‘yeah but I didn’t’.
Fiona Hall’s work is always surprising and inventive and playful. A couple of years ago I walked into a room at the MCA during the Sydney Biennale and saw one of her pieces I hadn’t seen before and was comforted to find her name attached.
After that I added her name to the list in Google that trigger ‘Alerts’ so I could read about her activities. (There she joins Brian Eno, David Hockney and Alan Moore.) When the Venice Biennale came around there was a little flurry of mostly Australian media and I wondered if I could visit it but decided that wasn’t likely to happen.
My mum had a copy of my aunt’s notes for Hall’s show. These were a series of bullet points she prepared in her role as a volunteer guide at the NGA. I read them and could see a lot of information that had been in articles I’d already read about the show via my Google Alerts but she also had details gleaned directly from Hall and the curators.
You move from a dimly lit room with black walls into a more brightly lit one with white walls. The result is that Hall’s more recent work and its preoccupation with death, ranging from the obsolescence of consumer items through to extinction of species, becomes contrasted with her earlier themes like morality and sex.
I'd be interested in learning more about which creative processes and motifs she's revisited because there are earlier works on display too.
The retrospective room was a revelation for me. I hadn’t seen a lot of Hall's early work and also benefited from overhearing a tour led by curators at the NGA.
This style of presenting a perspective was refined in the black room, where a wooden box marked ‘Fox’ flickered with flashing coloured LED lights. When you leaned in you could see a chaotic scene with wordplay like “The Whinge of Change” leading toward a noose and then an eye looking back.
I wondered if the word 'Fox' on a box like an early camera was a reference to William Henry Talbot Fox, a pioneer of photography. The title of the work is 'Hack' (2015), so maybe it was just another of the many car model name badges attached to cabinets in the darkened room.
Click the video below to have a look in the peephole.
In some ways these doomsday-style clocks, like the money that grows on trees, illustrate the kinds of metaphors that Fiona Hall invokes in some of her artwork.
One of the things I like about her art is that there is wordplay in it. Sometimes it's generated between the objects and the title of the piece, other times it involves literal messages.
It really tickles the word nerd in me.
These small sculpture works are called 'Crust' (2014-15), a title that links bread and the surface of the planet. It's another example of the lateral thinking you can see in Fiona Hall's artwork.
Anyway, I won’t attempt more interpretation of the exhibition as I feel like I need to return and soak it all in again. It’s a wonderful experience and one I recommend.