The selection of Adelaide-based artist Fiona Hall AO as Australia’s sole representative for the 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2015, cemented her status as one of the country’s most respected and prominent artists. Hall is perhaps best known for her erotic sardine can sculptures, but works across a wide variety of media, engaging with themes of history, ecology, and the effects of globalization.
With a career spanning four decades, Hall has established herself as an artist of great insight, ingenuity, and imagination. Since she first emerged as a photographer in the 1970s, Hall has extended her repertoire to include sculpture, painting, installation, garden design, and video, developing a practice that is characterized by her use of everyday materials and objects, which she transforms into extraordinary, complex forms.
Hall’s Venice Biennale exhibition is entitled “Wrong Way Time” and will be curated by Linda Michael who is the deputy director and senior curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne as well as a respected editor and writer. Hall will be first artist to exhibit at the newly constructed Denton Corker Marshall-designed Australia Pavilion in the prestigious Giardini location where Australia has had a site since 1988.
“Wrong Way Time” will examine three intersecting concerns: global politics, finances and the environment. According to Australia Council for the Arts, Hall’s love of nature, interest in things “counter and strange,” and her eye for the foibles of human nature will underlie the exhibition which Linda Michael describes as “a rich, archaeological display that imagines and embodies some of the issues and fluctuations of our time.”
In anticipation of the unveiling of Hall’s Venice Biennale exhibition in 2015, BLOUIN ARTINFO spoke to Hall about “Wrong Way Time,” the new Australia Pavilion, and her intriguing practice.
The title of your 56th Venice Biennale exhibition is “Wrong Way Time.” What was the inspiration behind the title and what does it reveal about the installation?
The title really came out from the overall concept for the exhibition, in terms of its agendas, but also because there are a lot of clocks physically in the installation. So, it fitted into the clocks and I realized it is a good umbrella title for the installation. The title was conceived a year ago in late 2013. Little did I realize at the time – that with global politics and social issues, we would really seem to be going the wrong way in 2014, which is what has transpired in so many ways with problems in Syria, in the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, with environmental problems. You name it, it’s been a hell year, and it’s as if we’ve done globally a U-turn that’s of no benefit to us.
“Wrong Way Time” will be the first exhibition to be held in Australia’s new pavilion. How did this impact your plans for the space?
Soon after I was fortunate to be selected to be the artist representing Australia, I got the plans and I saw the scale of the new pavilion’s interior. It’s a fantastic new building. It’s very simple. It will date very well, given that all architecture dates, but I’m sure that this will date extremely well and remain viable as a great exhibition space into the future.
However, it’s much bigger than our old pavilion, and I knew that from when I received the plans the scale that I was working to. Even though the site is, at this point, sight unseen for me. And, in the short amount of time to realize the installation that’s created a lot of headaches in terms of trying to realise what I want to do. So that the new space has a resonance, my works need to answer the scale of the new space, and time has been my enemy there, but in every other way the new pavilion is wonderful.
Curator Linda Michael describes “Wrong Way Time” as “a rich, archaeological display that imagines and embodies some of the issues and fluctuations of our time.” What are the issues and fluctuations that Linda refers to?
Upon being selected to be the representative in the Australian Pavilion, I was asked to write a short text of what I would do, and I haven’t diverged from that. My three main agendas were global conflict, global finances, and the environment, and some of the local and global issues there. And with these three agendas, my stance, my direction, particularly given the title “Wrong Way Time,” has been to look at the madness, badness and sadness that seems to permeate so much of our world today. That was written in October 2013, and who would have guessed at how mad and bad and sad 2014 would be. And, heavens knows, where we will be by the time the Biennale opens.
There seems to have been a significant shift in your practice in the 1990s at the time of your first sardine can works, for which you are best known. What led to the shift and how has it shaped your practice since?
I think that at that time in the 1990s, that particular work changed what was my practice to date because it was the first time I looked at putting together nature and culture in quite specific ways. Now, my work has quite a lot to do with environmental issues, so that was probably the initial spark there, but, in the 1990s I was also involved in quite a few exhibitions and residency experiences that also shaped my sense of where I sit in the world. One was a show I was in in Copenhagen in 1996--96 shipping containers with work in each one by artists from different parts of the world. Because of the way the whole thing was arranged along a dock, Australia was next to South America and the southern part of Africa, and South East Asia were just above us, and I realized that that’s the part of the world that I live, even though I live in a country that has close connections with Europe through colonization, but I’m not situated in that part of the world.
A few years later in late 1999 I was invited to go to Sri Lanka to commence a residency program there. It was a real watershed experience for me because I became aware of a lot of other political issues and ethnic divides, and because Sri Lanka, of course, has had a terrible civil war raging there. The ending of that war caused a great deal of calamity to many Sri Lankans, who at this point in time are trying to leave the country to come to places like Australia for a better life. So that really focused my attention on issues of conflict, on a both a local and a more global scale, how history, particularly colonial history has impacted the state of the world in so many places today including in the Middle East. Colonization has got a lot to do with the misshaping of the Middle East in current times. So that first month I spent in Sri Lanka really changed the direction of my work, and consolidated things that had begun a few years earlier.
Your 2014 Adelaide Biennial installation, “Out of my tree,” included a few works that will show in the Venice Biennale installation. How has your Venice Biennale exhibition evolved from the “Out of my tree” installation?
The Venice work is focused in a response to the issues of global finances, global conflict and the environment, whereas ‘Out of my tree’ is more of a personal, I suppose a call-out of a certain kind of despair and cynicism combined about the state of the world. “Out of my tree” is, of course, a way of saying I’m going crazy. So there’s supposed to be a fair bit of wit in that show. I wouldn’t say that there is so much wit in my Venice Biennale show, but there is in parts. [Linda Michael: There is black humour].
“Out of my tree” was rather wacky and cheeky and it had a lot of skulls in it. And, of course, the skull is an image from popular culture, and of course I am by no means the first artist to use the skull. One Australian critic remarked to someone I knew during the opening that it looked like a teenage boy’s bedroom come to life and I’ll take that as some kind of compliment! It was dark; it had melodrama. My Venice installation is, I hope, directed and weighted very differently to that.
Wrong Way Time” examines global politics, finances, and the environment. Could you explain how you engage with materials, images, and objects to communicate the ideas and concerns that form the basis of the exhibition?
There’s a wide variety of materials which is probably typical to my practice. This installation has more diversity of materials than I have ever used previously. There’s camouflage garments; there’s newspapers; there’s found things; and there’s a lot of clocks. And, of course, the clocks--as with many of my materials--bring along their own context as well that gives the work its conceptual reading within the material. As does the camouflage material.
There’s other materials. The materials are used across a number of different works that then become different components of the installation. Some of them are grouped together, some might be scattered throughout different sections of the installation. Every piece in the installation carries its weight. Collectively, the materials rub shoulders with each other to create a sense of the agendas and the frictions and the troubles of the world.