Fiona Hall (b. 1953), Paradisus Terrestris, Nelumbo nucifera; nelum (Sinhala); thamereri (Taml); lotus, 1999, aluminium and steel. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Fiona Margaret Hall (b. 1953) is one of Australia's leading contemporary artists. She first emerged in the 1970s as a photographer, but during the 1980s transitioned to using a diverse range of art forms. Her ever-growing repertoire includes sculpture, painting, installation, garden design and video.
Hall's choice of material, and the way she uses it, is critical to her art. It speaks to us because it engages with contemporary life in intriguing ways, created from an Australian perspective. Hall deliberately transforms ordinary everyday objects to address a range of contemporary issues such as globalisation, consumerism, colonialism and natural history.
The core theme throughout Hall's work is the relationship between nature and culture. Throughout her career Hall has also maintained a lifelong commitment to teaching and study as a means of furthering her art.
Hall is arguably best known for her erotic sardine can series, Paradisus Terrestris. First appearing in 1990, this three-part series depicts the intersection of plant and human culture. Within each half-opened can sits a naked human body part, while plant life sprouts above. Beneath these top two layers, Hall adds language. The three systems make us consider what we share with plants.
Hall's career spans four decades, and continues unabated. She is an extraordinarily energetic artist. Her work is represented in every major public art collection in Australia. She exhibits regularly in Australia and overseas.
Hall's early life
Hall grew up in Sydney's southern suburb of Oatley, close to bushland. It was a natural environment enjoyed by the Hall family who went bushwalking and camping regularly.
Hall's leaning toward the arts was encouraged by her scientist mother, Ruby Payne-Scott, who took the 14-year-old Hall to see the landmark exhibition Two Decades of American Painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. For Hall, it left a lasting impression, spurring her interest in the artistic world.
During high school, Hall decided upon a career in art. In her final years she found the Sydney experimental art circles, where she was exposed to radically new ways of considering modern art, including the use of photography as a form of artistic expression.
Hall's early works
Fiona Hall (b. 1953), Leura, New South Wales, 1974, photograph. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Despite enrolling in a Diploma of Painting, Hall was drawn to photography. With the support of John Firth-Smith, her painting teacher, she experimented with photography, and studied it as a minor with George Schwarz. At the time, photography was not offered as a major course.
In 1974, while in her third year of art school, Hall exhibited her photographs for the first time in Thoughts and Images: An Exploratory Exhibition of Australian Student Photography. Other student exhibitors included Bill Henson, Sue Ford and Rodney Pople.
Hall's early photographs document her surrounds. She investigates the proliferation of exotic plant species in the native environment in Leura, New South Wales (1974); the different textures of Bondi Beach (1975); and the idea of trouble in paradise in Oatley, Sydney (1974).
By her early 20s, Hall was already a professional photographer; her work exhibited, collected and published.
Exploring photography and beyond
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Pett Level, England, 1978, gelatin silver photograph. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
After graduating in 1975, Hall headed to Europe. Based in London, she worked as an assistant to Fay Godwin, well-known English photographer, and spent her spare time absorbed in various galleries, museums and libraries of Europe.
In 1977, Hall held her first solo exhibition at London's Creative Camera Gallery. And, in 1978, during a brief visit home to care for her sick mother, she held her first Australian solo exhibition at the Church Street Photography Centre in Melbourne.
Hall's images around this time reveal a move away from merely documenting, toward more personal, less defined images, such as London (1976) and Pett Level, England (1978).
With her growing interest in multiple perspectives and experimentation, Hall went to America for further study. Between 1978 and 1982, she undertook the Workshop Program at the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) in Rochester, New York. For her artist's residency, she returned to Hobart, Australia in 1981, and made The Antipodean Suite.
The VSW, led by Nathan Lyons, fed Hall's leaning toward experimentation and immediately impacted on her work. She made a decisive move to manipulated photography; one that incorporated the use of diverse objects and art forms.
Searching and 'making sense'
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Gluttony, The Seven Deadly Sins, 1985, Polaroid photograph. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
In 1983, Hall took up a photo studies lecturing position at the South Australian School of Art. During this decade, she also developed a strong profile, producing several notable series' and seven solo exhibitions.
Hall's attempt to understand the world was largely informed by European literature. In particular, she studied the English Romantic poets, such as TS Eliot, traditional Christian texts and ancient philosophy. Her investigations resulted in works that broadly deal with order and chaos, good and evil.
In 1984, Hall created a suite of Morality dolls – the Seven Deadly Sins, her first three-dimensional works since high school. A year later, she produced a second suite, using oversized Polaroid photographs. Both suites investigate the human body, sexuality, order and chaos.
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Purgatory, canto XVI: The Wrathful, 1988, Polaroid photograph, KODAK (Australasia) PTY LTD Fund 1989. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 89.1429.
In 1988, Hall produced Illustrations to Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (1988) in response to the journeys through Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise in Dante's Divine Comedy. She used shredded sardine cans as flames, barbed wire on top of the gate to Purgatory and various other metal and hardware items. It was the first time she made the objects to photograph herself.
In 1989, Hall developed the first of her Paradisus terrestris series while at the Australia Council's studio in New York's SoHo district. As its title implies, this work addresses the idea of paradise. Its first showing at the 1990 Adelaide Biennial of Contemporary Art received great critical and popular success.
At the end of 1990, Hall's project, Words (1990) used unemotional and cooperative metal bodies to spell out sentences. According to Julie Ewington, author of The Art of Fiona Hall (2005), Words signifies a break from Hall's journey through darkness, chaos and distress, into self-acceptance and composure.
Hall: Contemporary life
From the 1990's, Hall turned her attention to making sense of modern life. As a result of her artistic success, she taught only half of each year between 1990 and 1997, allowing her to focus more on her art. She resigned in 2002 to work on her art full-time.
Hall continues to investigate issues ranging from consumption, politics and trade to the environment, nature, paradise and the body. Her choice of everyday materials and ways of using them is critical to her exploration.
Notable influences on Hall's work from the 1990's include artist residencies where she studied plant specimens (e.g. at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane, and in the country estate, Lunuganga in Sri Lanka), and animal specimens (e.g. at the South Australian Museum). The impact of her Sri Lankan experience is particularly evident in the Sri Lankan Paradisus terrestris (1999) series.
Select Works from the 1990s
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Medicine bundle for the non-born child, 1993-94, aluminium, rubber, plastic layette comprising matinee jacket. Image courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery.
In 1994, Hall's Biodata explored the social and political implications of trade. For Medicine bundle for the non-born child (1994), she knitted a baby's matinee jacket, bonnet and bootees from shredded Coca-Cola cans, attended by a six-pack of Coke cans with rubber nipples. It addresses notions of nurturing within our consumer society, referencing Coca-Cola as a symbol of plant degradation and cultural imperialism.
In 1996, Hall exhibited Give a dog a bone, a sharp criticism of consumerism. This installation comprised household objects carved from soap, arranged in cardboard boxes. In the middle of them is a photograph of her father, whose naked body is covered in a huge cape make of knitted strips of Coca-Cola cans. He is the 'king' of the castle of worthless objects. Significantly, this is Hall's last photograph.
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Fern garden, 1998, tree ferns, river pebbles, granite, steel, concrete, copper wood mulch, water. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia: NGA 98.16.
In 1998, Hall was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia to produce Fern garden . Employing the Dicksonia antarctica tree fern, one of Australia's most ancient plants, she created a womb-like space for reflection. This connection with plants is a theme revisited from her earlier Paradisus terrestris.
Selected recent works
In recent years, Hall has used paper currency in works such as Leaf litter (1999-2003) and Tender (2003-05). In the series of works Leaf litter, she painted life-size portraits of leaves over banknotes from the leaf's country of origin. The series of 183 sheets speak of the degradation of plant life, telling us, pointedly, that money can't buy everything.
Tender tells a similar story about the effects of modernisation on the habitat of many species, including birds. It features dozens of birds' nests made from shredded US dollar bills.
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Understorey (detail), 1999-2004, glass beads, silver wire, rubber, boar's teeth, vitrine. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Hall's Understorey (1999-2004) employs glass beads (the currency of colonisation) threaded onto wire to create three-dimensional objects depicting elements of plant and human material. The use of camouflage patterning aptly depicts the juxtaposition of nature and the conflicts over territory threatening it.
Another of Hall's recent works, Mourning chorus (2007-08), again addresses humanity's impact on the environment. The bodies' of 11 extinct or endangered bird species are made from disposable plastic chemical containers, and their beaks are from carved and cast resin. They sit in museological vitrines (as do some of Hall's other works) emphasising them as collected species.
Hall, Fiona (b. 1953), Castles in the air of the cave dwellers (detail), 2007-08. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
In a similar vein, Castles in the air of the cave dwellers (2007-08) are larger-than-life human brains, from which the structures of social animals, such as bees, ants and wasps, are attached. They are hybrid creations made of the human and natural worlds.
Hall’s preoccupation with the natural world, plants, the perilous state of various species, and where the human and natural worlds collide, is ongoing.
In 2015 Fiona Hall was commissioned to represent Australia at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Her exhibition Wrong Way Time, brings together hundreds of disparate elements which find alignments and create tensions around three intersecting concerns: global politics, world finances and the environment. Hall said she saw these as failed states, as "a minefield of madness, badness and sadness" stretching beyond the foreseeable future.
Listen, Look and Play
- Watch the episode Fiona Hall from Hidden Treasures with Betty Churcher
- Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Fiona Hall profile
- Australian Art Gallery, Fiona Hall timeline
- Fiona Hall, Australian Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2015, Background information for the media
- ABC Arts, Fiona Hall's mad, bad Venice exhibition
- Fiona Hall unveils work for 2015 Venice Biennale
- National Gallery of Australia, Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time, 22 April–17 July 2016
Select Hall collections
- National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
- Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
- National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
- Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank
- Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
- Ewington, Julie (2005). Fiona Hall, (monograph). Piper Press, Sydney, Australia
- Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney & City Gallery Wellington (2007). Fiona Hall: Force field. Published to coincide with the exhibition Force Field .
Last updated: 3rd February 2016
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications et al.