Fiona Hall is no enigma

Australian artist Fiona Hall, now showing at Wellington's City Gallery, fritters her considerable talents on market-driven conceptual art

Force Field, an exhibition of works by Fiona Hall, is at the City Gallery, Wellington until October 19.

It is worth saying at the outset that Australian artist Fiona Hall has a considerable talent as a figurative artist. Five etchings from 2006 called Insectivorous—included in this show—display these talents to a high degree. The details of wing and leaf veins, the natural contortions of biological shapes, the delicate colouring all speak of a patient attention to detail, a fine eye for the truth of living things, a steady mastery of the etcher’s tools and methods, and a facility for capturing in static form the beautiful transience of life, the continuous movement of living things from creation to extinction.

Much the same might be said of the technical facility of the series rather pompously called Paradisus terrestris, a sculptured work in aluminium and tin, highly polished to a sharp silver finish, in which semi-opened sardine tins give rise to the leaves and stems of a variety of natural species of tree and shrub. Inside each tin a flattened image of a body part (Ms Hall is a body-part enthusiast) must be assumed to be saying something about the human role in this peculiar genesis. The craftswomanship of these 30 pieces is self-evident, and bears comparison to the wonderful sculptured work in similar media by Elizabeth Thomson, which rightly attracted critical acclaim at the same gallery in the winter of 2006.

Similarity ends there, however. Elizabeth Thomson treats us with the respect that an artist owes to that unknown, potential world of observers towards which all creative people have to feel their way. It’s called finding your audience.
Ms Hall’s disinclination to make this arduous journey may be because she has, like so many conceptual artists, mistaken the market for her audience. Most of the audience for the creative visual arts have neither the desire nor the money to belong to the market for them. The two worlds separated a few generations ago, and are now divorced. Ms Hall has apparently found her market—there is an ominous expression of thanks to Jenny Gibbs in this show—but has done so at the expense of her audience.

Various works illustrate this unhappy truth. A Type C photograph titled Pupa of a conventionally pneumatic young woman with her legs wide enough apart to accommodate the crudest imagination, and accompanied by a pile of videos of the Bodily Harm sort, could adorn the entrance to any King’s Cross strip joint without discomforting the patrons as they look for somewhere to park their hats and consciences. And a similarly deeply dull photographic work, The Social Fabric, portrays a larger-then-life white haired, red-nosed, rheumy-eyed, miserable-looking man, naked but for an elastoplast on his upper chest and a length of diaphanous fabric draped round him like a badly fitted toga and just translucent enough to show his genitalia, which presumes to tell us something about our lives according to that brilliantly suggestive title. Oh, puh-leeeease, as the young used to say 15 years ago. As a photo of Granddad wishing his photographer grand-daughter had turned out to be, say, a hairdresser, it might have done for a certain kind of family album. Its purpose in or relevance to a wider world that we might imagine to include art is hard to detect.

Which is generally true of polemic—the field in which Ms Hall has mistakenly chosen to exercise her considerable talents. Give a dog a bone, a work from 1996, is one of those cardboard carton and yellowed bits of sculpted soap constructions that owes something to the “ready-made” La Fontaine of R. Mutt by Duchamp: the sort of thing that has enriched the art market since the First World War, but left the art audience deeply, deeply indifferent. Ms Hall said the work “reflected upon [her] culture and global perspective” and suggested “a hobo’s cave containing the flotsam and jetsam of our contemporary urban lives”. You’d think anyone would be ashamed to make up this kind of thing and stick it in an international show (which this one was) so the fact that it, and similar works of no originality, much fuss, and negligible aesthetic appeal, are made, shown and purchased,  tells us a great deal about the contemporary state of commerce in the art market.

Which is where the deeper paradox lies. Ms Hall, like anyone these days with his or her head above the parapet, is against war and Coca Cola and colonialism and the degradation of the environment and the loss of species and all the mess and waste and spoliation of urban living. Industrialisation, consumerism and commerce are all to blame, of course. We all know that. Just as we know that we should stop doing all these things and get our heads and habits in order. Meanwhile, this art world, the world of the Age of Trash, is the principal beneficiary. This is where the money is. This is where the big prizes are given out, the largest egos massaged, heady prices paid, and warehouse-size collections accumulated. Conceptual art—a misnomer for a large field in which the majority of works are devoid of any but the silliest concepts—is a magnet so powerful that gifted artists abandon the terrible terrain of struggle to wrest insight and beauty from Théophile Gautier’s ‘bloc resistant’ in order to sell to precisely the commercial bidder whose world of destruction is the lightweight, easy target of polemic as art. In this way the circle is squared. Cake is had and eaten.

You can see this at work in Mourning Chorus 2007-2008 (get the pun?) a resin, plastic and vitrine work in which studied models of the beaks of a number of extinct or nearly extinct birds are attached to plastic containers of the motor oil, Round-up, and cobweb eliminator type, located in a coffin-shaped glass case—the glass decorated with leaf designs of native plants and trees—and each plastic shell illuminated from within by electricity. For polemical obviousness and the dullness of its argument, you could hardly do better (or worse).

But this is not all. The other thing that we should hold against it is the betrayal of art into ugliness. This is nowhere better exemplified than in the glass-cased installation Scar Tissue 2003-2004, and the wall hanging Syntax of Flowers 1992, both of which might be said to denigrate by their indecency the very talent that brought them before an unreceptive audience.

Scar Tissue 2003-2004 consists of a large cross-shaped glass case containing 29 (Ms Hall may have a thing about the number 29) war film video boxes linked upwards by video tape to various sculptured figures—heads, body parts, children’s toys—that appear to float in a vacuum. These are very cleverly made objects as well as being for the most part black. Amongst them the flying pig reminded me of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it was the only creative reference I was able to detect, and that may well have been unintended. Ms Hall does not strike me as having much of a sense of humour, least of all self-referential. Of course, this is an anti-war piece, and Ms Hall is against war and its glorification. No doubt we all should be so. But for an artist’s account of why and how—and without going back to Goya—anyone would do far better to go to see the Rita Angus retrospective as it tours the country.

Even so, and despite the infantilism of Ms Hall’s anti-war work, Syntax of Flowers 1992 is a still better place to rest the case against this show. It is a work in linoleum, perfume bottles and oil paint. Twenty-nine bottles are mounted on little display ledges against a background of what looks like kitsch flowered wallpaper, each one sporting the small painted figure of a nude female in postures of unsurpassed vulgarity. Ms Hall has apparently stated that she considers this a feminist work “erotic, yet also feisty and ironic.” As with so much else she is utterly mistaken. It is an anti-humanist work—pornographic, dull and pretentious.

Fiona Hall is no enigma. If you are after in-your-face polemical statements of dubious intellectual worth and meretricious vulgarity (which most of the audience at this show on the various occasions when I was there were manifestly not) then she may be one practitioner you should turn to. Of course Australian culture is built on polemic, and Ms Hall can certainly hold her own in that world, just as she can in the wider world of the art market in the Age of Trash to which we have the misfortune to belong. But it doesn’t make it art. And it doesn’t make it interesting. And it is a very great waste of talent.

Alas, the same is true of the accompanying notes to the show, which were written by Greg O’Brien, who knows better, and will in years to come surely be embarrassed by the shallowness of an exhibition the main value of which is to illustrate to an aware audience the malevolent destructive effects of the market on good artists and their potential.

Keith Ovenden will write here on art, music, theatre and literature once a fortnight.