Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time

Alarmingly relevant and unforgivingly good could describe the celebrated exhibition by Australian artist Fiona Hall. Wrong Way time was brought to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Australia, after its success at the Australian Pavilion during the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) in Venice, Italy. Not only that it loudly conveys the urgency of our time, but also a showcase of exquisite craftsmanship and devotion of an artist. The entire exhibition featured two rooms: the first room to greet visitors, curated by Linda Michael, was designed as similar as possible to its dark and dramatic setting in Venice; and the second room, curated by Deborah Hart, displayed archives from NGA’s collection, within a white cube manner.

As a person deeply attached to nature, Wrong Way Time serves as Hall’s testimony about the current society as a bad time to live. Her works are a juxtaposition of the natural ecosystem and the one created by human greed and obsession to the material world. Her statement, “If you have something to say, you do it as efficiently as possible” (Hall, 2015) is evident in her products. Composed, entwined, stitched, and painted from and to an array of daily objects, the oeuvres do not bother to be flattering nor subtle.

Fiona Hall – skull.png
Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time detail. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The first room brought an immersive journey within a space thoroughly painted in black and dimly lit, just enough to highlight each pieces clearly. Upon entering the hushed ambience, ticking sounds from numerous activated clocks steadily haunt the visitors, reminding them of fleeting time. Antique timeworks were brashly vandalised – painted over their exquisite ornaments were unsettling imageries of thorns, noose, skulls, a grim figure, and among these, there were also familiar icons of Twitter and QR code.

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Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time detail. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Immediately after the uncomfortable series, Hall let nature speaks for itself in her piece Manuhiri (Travellers), 2014-15. Acting like a devoted messenger of time, Hall meticulously collected driftwoods from the shores of Awanui, of the North Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand. These were remnants of tree trunks fallen as the products of manual erosion needed for farming, washed away by the river of Waiapu to the sea, to be continuously reshaped by the streams of water, and eventually retake the ghostly forms of what used to roam the forests and the sea.

Fiona Hall – Driftwood.png
Hall, Fiona. Manuhiri (Travellers). 2014-15. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

A few steps away from the mural, Hall’s exceptional attention to details unveils in her cabinets of curiosity, which displays her success in manipulating various materials to achieve delicately shaped compositions. On one shelf, loaves of breads were carved into hospitals, a dead bird, and a wrecked village on top of atlases, each presenting a particular map to depict a series of regional, yet worldwide, tragedies. On another shelf, copies of bank notes were painstakingly cut into stripes, and entwined to form bird eggs and nests.

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Hall, Fiona. Left: Tender. 2003-05. US dollars vitrine. 220 x 360 x 150 mm. Right: Crust. 2014–15. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Recurring throughout the cabinets and again as a mural on the second room, a series of leaves were drawn onto notes which corresponds to their native origins. Leaf Litter (2000) directed Hall’s personal messages to each presented country about the relationship between commerce and the natural environment on which it runs. It does not take long for the multinational visitors to recognise the representative bills of their hometowns, being intimately familiar with cash on a daily basis. Yet, not as easily when it comes to the type of leaves inked on it, being the raw material that fashions the money.

Fiona Hall – Bank Notes.pngHall, Fiona. Leaf Litter. 2000. Bank notes, gouache. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The second room complemented Hall’s capability upon working with more mediums – ceramics, etchings, more knitted creatures, tin cans, drawing pen, and paper. Her response to the bombings in Syria, for example, manifested as three traditional vases incised with words which were popularised by the media, their style distinct to Syrian culture – an identity already wiped by tragedies; tin cans were transformed intricately to represent plants, which are playfully combined with human erogenous parts; and a series of polaroid imageries, Words and Void (1989), picturing men’s journey in hell and progression to heaven, as depicted by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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Hall, Fiona. Top: Details from Paradisus Terrestris entitled. 1996. Alumunium and Tin. Bottom: Details from Void; Words. 1989. Polaroid photo. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Placing humanity side by side with nature again, Morality Dolls – The Seven Deadly Sins (1984) investigated the innate traits of men. Right next to the series was a series of detailed works achieved through precisely etched plates, inspired by scenes of nature.

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Hall, Fiona. Details of Morality Dolls – The Seven Deadly Sins. 1984. Photocopy, cardboard, paper fastener, cord. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.


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Hall, Fiona. Details of etched works. 2009/10. 2010 printed by Basil Hall at Basil Hall Editions, Darwin. etching, printed in colour inks, from six plates. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Hall’s technical calibre as an artist only plays a small role compared to her strong character and consciousness in regards to the ecosystem and the nature of humankind beyond herself. Wrong Way Time simultaneously represents the contemporary issues of politics, finances, and environment through disparate elements that were masterfully delivered into tangible craftworks, and meticulously staged to create not only an artistic experience that was impossible to ignore, but also a spiritual one.


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