Fiona Hall's Wrong Way Time

Recently I’d been thinking about significant contemporary Australian artists and concluded that Fiona Hall is at the top of my list.

I think it was 1991 that I first saw her little sardine can sculptures at the National Gallery of Australia. That was when I went on a school excursion with my girlfriend Karen and she drew my attention to them, which led to a surprise in seeing genitals within them. It made an impression on my 17-year old self.

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.

So I was really excited when I saw the ‘Wrong Way Time’ exhibition was coming to the NGA in Canberra. It took a few attempts to get there but I did and was richly rewarded with viewing one of my favourite exhibitions since 'The Big Americans' show more than a decade ago, also at the NGA.

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.

Despite all I’d read, ‘Wrong Way Time’ surprised me with it’s morbidity. There’s a lot of death imagery balanced with a little of life. It’s a theme that becomes more pronounced when you walk into the second room that’s a retrospective of Hall’s earlier artwork.

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 couldn’t help conclude that ‘Wrong Way Time’ shows Hall is thinking about her own mortality but perhaps I'm reading too much into the preoccupation with the death in the clocks, extinct animals and large number of skulls.

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 symbols of death were offset with a few inferences of life, such as the sperm added to banknotes featuring dictators. There were also works that reflect Hall's botanical interests but I think most were earlier pieces.

Another style of representation on banknotes was 'Leaf Litter' 1999-2003 with leaves painted on the currency of the country they share; as well as 'Tender' (2003-6) where US dollars were made into bird nests. The former poses a kind of comment on the line that 'money doesn't grow on trees' when it is often made from paper, which is produced from wood. The latter seems to me a kind of play on the line to 'feather your nest' when making a profit.

One corner was filled with 'Kuka Irititja (Animals From Another Time)' (2014), a collaboration with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers that I think represented extinctions. It would've been good to have more information as very little interpretive text was provided.

One wall was mounted with driftwood, which I thought I overheard a curator explain had come from a South Australian beach but my aunt says is from New Zealand. The curator shared an anecdote that Hall had joked she'd taken her favourite beach to Venice, which strikes me as being the sort of idea that would appeal to the artist -- that driftwood could float to the city famous for its water.

Another skull motif occupied the middle of the darkened room with 'All the Kings Men' (2014-15), a collection of macrame-style figures hanging and turning slowly on their wires. I really wanted to get in among these for that sense of them surrounding me but had to settle for walking around them.

There was also this painting that featured skulls. I hadn't associated painting with Hall's output prior to this exhibition.

And, as you enter, there's also this gorgeous skull.

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.

I learned that Hall’s early art career had been in photography before she started creating scenes with tin to photograph using a large format Polaroid, long before creating sculptures like the sardine tins that had first made an impression on me as a teen.

I mentioned morality but themes in her earlier works were clearly biblical, such as the marionettes representing the seven deadly sins. Shown here is lust. (Now I think about it, this style of puppet seems a bit like those hanging in the other room.)

Hall's background in photography made a lot of sense when I saw the concertina-style peephole books she’d produced that are viewed through a little eyehole at one end. I really like this technique for directing the viewer and also creating a sense of spatial depth in an artwork.

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.

It was one example of another kind of retrospective as artworks seemed to be mirrored in the exhibition. The two rooms, being black and white, offered interesting contrasts in their contents. The peephole-style works are one example, another is the sardine tin sculptures in each room.

The inclusion of clocks in ‘Wrong Way Time’ really appealed to me as they would tick and occasionally chime, adding the element of sound that isn't usually a consideration. So often galleries focus on visual stimulus and I really like it when sounds but also touch and scents are included in exhibitions.

It's worth sharing a few more photos of the many clocks, so you can see the pessimistic messages they wear.

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.

This playfulness in her work is exemplified in the sculptures made from bread, which are placed on maps to provide interesting insights -- such as the slingshot on the Middle East. It's a rich image for me, inferring David and Goliath, Palestine and the Arab Spring. That's a stack of references leaping from a fairly simple context!

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.

The National Gallery of Australia was a great venue for 'Wrong Way Time' as the foyer to the exhibition overlooked 'Fern Garden' (1998). This landscape is yet another demonstration of Hall's ability to move between mediums. It's also been one of my favourite parts of the Gallery and I have many memories of visiting it late at night.

I adore the gates to the garden, which are shaped like female reproductive organs.

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.