Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

The celebrated new Australian Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, attracted global attention. Fiona Hall became the first artist to represent Australia in the new building with her exhibition Wrong Way Time.

The world is such an amazing place, yet sadly we are living in troubled times and that sense is reflected in a lot of the works. Wrong Way Time presents more than 800 objects in one space, installed in huge cabinets filled with curiosities. Around the walls are clocks painted with diverse imagery and slogans, which tick and chime in a cycle reminding viewers that time is passing.

Hall’s lifelong passion for the natural environment can be felt intensely. The artist brings together hundreds of disparate elements which create tensions around three intersecting concerns: global politics, world finances and the environment. Hall sees these as failed states, as ‘a minefield of madness, badness and sadness’ stretching beyond the foreseeable future.

Fiona Hall’s work responds to her concerns around our persistent role in nature’s demise, or to the perilous state of various species. Notwithstanding a prevalent darkness, Hall’s exhibition is fundamentally life-affirming.

Fiona Margaret Hall, AO (born 16 November 1953) is an Australian artistic photographer and sculptor. Hall represented Australia in the 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2015. She is known as “one of Australia’s most consistently innovative contemporary artists.” Many of her works explore the “intersection of environment, politics and exploitation”.

After graduating, Hall lived in London, England between January 1976 and August 1978. In the summer of 1976, Hall spent three months travelling around Europe, during which she visited numerous art institutions and gifts two of her photographs with Jean-Claude Lemagny – the Chief Curator of Photography – at the Bibliothéque nationale. Upon her return to London, Hall began working with Peter Turner, editor of Creative Camera, a British photography Magazine. Through this job Hall was introduced to Fay Goodwin, for whom she was an assistant for the remainder of her time in London. Hall held her first solo exhibition in 1977 at London’s Creative Camera Gallery. Hall returned to Australia in 1978 to visit her mother, who was ill. In that same year, she displayed her first Australian solo exhibition at Church Street Photography Centre, Melbourne, then moved to the United States to study for a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) (Photography) at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York.

The 1980s saw Hall establishing a significant artistic profile for herself through involvement in several solo and group exhibitions across Australia. As part of her study, Hall returned to Australia in 1981 to live as the artist-in-residence at the Tasmanian School of Art with the support of a grant from the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council. There, she created The Antipodean Suite with objects such as banana peel and power cords, an early demonstration of a consistent theme in her work, “the transformation of the everyday… into creations of imaginative beauty.” Also in 1981, five photographs by Fiona Hall were acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the first of her works to enter a public collection. Hall graduated with a MFA in 1982, and in the same year participated in the Biennale of Sydney.

In 1983, Hall began lecturing in photo studies at the South Australian School of Art, Adelaide, where she remained until formally resigning in 2002. Between 1984 and 1986, Hall was commissioned to document the new Parliament House of Australia, creating forty-four photographs for the Parliament House Construction Project.

During the 1980s, she created a number of series from everyday objects, including Morality Dolls – The Seven Deadly Sins, cardboard marionettes composed from photocopies of medical engravings; Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, photographs of human figures made from painted and burnished aluminium cans; and Paradisus terrestris, in which Hall “used sardine tins to form exquisite sculptures of botanical specimens which sit on top of the open tin revealing human sexual parts which correspond physically to the attributes of the plant.” In 1989, Hall was featured in an SBS television program about Australian photographers, Visual Instincts.

Between June and October 1991, Hall was Artist in Residence at Philip Institute of Technology in Preston, Victoria. For four months over 1992–1993, the National Gallery of Australia hosted an exhibition of Hall’s work titled The Garden of Earthly Delights: The Art of Fiona Hall, which included “early field photographs, a sampling from several series of studio photographs, as well as sculpture and ceramics.” In the late 1990s, Hall stopped working in the medium of photography, and the photograph of her father, incorporated into her 1996 large-scale installation Give a Dog a Bone, was the last that she exhibited.

In 1997, Hall took leave without pay from the University of South Australia, and spent the second half of the year at Canberra School of Art as the Australian National University Creative Arts Fellow. While living in Canberra, Hall planned and designed a commissioned work for the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia. Instead of creating a sculpture for the gallery, as initially planned, Hall created Fern Garden, a 20-square-metre permanent installation of landscape art, opened to the public in 1998. In this same year, she spent the first six months in London at the London Visual Arts/Crafts Board studio, then moved back in Australia as the Artist in Residence at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens (where she created Cash Crop, 1998 (series), part of Fieldwork, 1999), and finally at the South Australian Museum in a series of informal residencies. She spent 1999 in Sri Lanka on an Asialink Lunuganga Residency. Her subsequent work explored further the concepts of history, transporting and transplanting.

In 2000, Hall was commissioned to create a public artwork in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and designed A Folly for Mrs Macquarie. In 2005, retrospectives of her work were held at the Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia. In the same year, Hall was commissioned to create a piece for the new Chancellery Building of the University of South Australia. In 2008-2009, another retrospective, entitled Force Field, was displayed in Sydney, New South Wales, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in New Zealand at the City Gallery, Wellington, and the Christchurch Art Gallery.

In 2015, Hall represented Australia in the 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, with a work entitled Wrong Way Time. The following year, Wrong Way Time was exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia. Hall continues to work with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, where she has exhibited since 1995.

“The realities of terrorism, war, climate change, environmental pillage, and economic turmoil have become part of our daily consciousness”

Wrong Way Time can be read as a body of work encompassing hundreds of elements, each embedded with layers of meaning that the viewer discovers while navigating through the exhibition.

Hall uses repetition, mimicry, layers of reference, and repurposed materials and objects to create a symbolic landscape that reveals her fascination with natural cycles, and the policies and actions that degrade organic systems or diminish life.

“The body of work I’m presenting is a personal attempt to reconcile a state of gloom and chaos with a curiosity and affection for the place where we all live”

“Our contemporary mindset has resulted in widespread paranoia over this perilous state. But it’s a world that’s also resilient and wondrous.”

The exhibition
“Wrong Way Time”, comprised a bounty of exquisite works that completely filled the elegant structure designed as a white box within a black box.

Hall is an artist with a lot to say but time is running out. The grandfather clocks lined up against the wall at the back of the space, as though in a graveyard, are variously decorated with skulls, skeletons, hangman nooses and graffitied with fatalistic phrases and occult-looking numbers. These objects playfully represent the wishful impossibility of the exhibition’s title. ‘Turn back the clock’ they seem to be saying. Time is going in the wrong direction.

“a minefield of madness, badness, and sadness in equal measure”
Wrong Way Time brings together dozens of multi-part works created by artist Fiona Hall, set in dialogue with each other within a multisensory, immersive display. Hall’s subject is the intersecting field of global conflict, world finances, and the environment, which she perceives as “a minefield of madness, badness, and sadness in equal measure”.

Fiona Halls sustained examination of the intricate interrelationship between nature and culture takes on new urgency as she responds to the realities of climate change, war and increasing inequity. A museum of transformed materials and objects, together with intense and poignant paintings and sculptures, prompt us to consider our impact on the future of nature.

In Wrong Way Time, visitors enter a dark space where illuminated objects emerge from the shadows. A forest of painted clocks—grandfather, grandmother, mantle, and cuckoo – forms a dark walls of lament.

Charred cabinets are filled with collections of banknotes, newspapers and atlases and other archaeological remnants of contemporary life. The cabinets are filled with cast bronze forms and intricate hammered tin sculptures, sculpted bread and bird’s nests made of shredded banknotes.

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The cabinet surrounds a central group of hanging figures with distorted heads knitted from camouflage fabric, a nihilistic hub of hollow death masks. The intermittent sounds of clocks ticking, chiming and cuckooing, along with field recordings of crows, add a resonant layer that contributes to a sense of madness and doom.

Manuhiri (Travellers) (2014)
The impact of colonization and capitalism on the environment is also explored in Manuhiri (Travellers) (2014), for which Hall collected driftwood, including pine, poplar, manuka, and kanuka, from the Waiapu River on the east coast of the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. The Waiapu was once surrounded by heavily forested land before suffering from erosion, chemical runoff, and the accumulation of silt due to development. In a paradoxical and poetic move, the pieces of driftwood selected by Hall evoke the shape of living creatures, appearing as poignant vestiges of the environmental degradation that shaped them.

All the King’s Men
All the King’s Men (2014–15) is a display of hanging, three-dimensional figures whose heads are knitted from uniforms made of camouflage fabric from various countries, designed to mimic nature to benefit the activities of military forces. Ghostly vestigial bodies hang from the disfigured heads, forming a disturbing group that stands in for countless foot-soldiers, casualties of war regardless of nationality.

“While it reflects a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future, fed by news about war, climate mutations, species extinction and economic inequity, the exhibition itself is life-affirming and transformative.”


The cacophony of the ticking clocks, punctuated with the occasional chiming of the cuckoo clocks, present a constant reminder of our mortality like a memento mori in the dimensions of space and time.

By contrast, on the right wall immediately inside the entrance is a menagerie of strange animals woven from Australian native grasses and military camouflage. The didactic sign helpfully explains that the collection features representations of endangered or extinct Australian desert animals and were made by Hall in collaboration with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers of the western and central deserts of Australia.

Surrounding and containing this work are vertical vitrines on all sides. Looking more like a natural history museum than a contemporary art exhibition, Hall’s cabinets contain a vast array of appealing curiosities, too many to list in this short review. Some objects, such as the driftwood used for the Travellers are selected for their resemblance of creatures. Other objects including the bronze potatoes are in fact painstakingly and meticulously constructed.

Many of the works examine the complex interrelationships between nature and culture. In Tender, a collection of empty bird nests, we witness Hall’s finely observed mimicry of nature. On close inspection the replica nests are made from shredded US dollar bills, the serial numbers of which cover an entire glass panel. The nests are empty – the extinct birds are long gone – and the money now has no value. The title, with its multiple meanings, prompts us to reflect on the kind of society that cares more about the destruction of bank notes than the extinction of bird species.

Despite superficial differences money is essentially the same everywhere around the globe. It represents value and facilitates transactional relationships. However, Hall treats the notes as cultural artefacts and lines entire walls with them. Some of these fine specimens in gouache depict plants that were once vital to the economies of the countries in which they grew and their seeds were traded across the globe. Now these natives look like a botanical virus that subsumes the notes and renders them as common as mounting paper. Some bank notes are arranged according to the images printed on them including dams, agricultural machinery and nuclear plants. These technological achievements celebrate the harnessing and conquering of nature.

Hall’s comments on the precarious state of the natural world and our environment are cutting and straight to the point but with humour, irony and lightness of touch so as to conceal a surgeon-like scalpel. The scalpel is no metaphor in the cut out sardine tins titled Paradisus Terrestris. Rescued from the recycling bin these tins are transformed and elevated to works of art. The strange erotic hybrids of native flora and body parts imply a collision of Nature (the Indigenous Australian plants) and Culture (the colonisation by white settlers).

The tins, which remain some of the best loved of Hall’s earlier works, are among the hundreds of seemingly disparate pieces that are carefully positioned so as to help us make connections between them and to guide our understanding of the issues about which Hall is so passionate. Despite the sombre colours and messages of doom, at no point does being in the space feel like we are being led on a protest march by radical activists. Hall’s tactics are far more subtle and effective.

Reconfigured cultural artefacts prompt us to interpret and reinterpret these common objects in a new way and to form new ideas from their novel juxtaposition. In Vaporised what were originally perfume bottles are now a graveyard of skull-painted glass. In Crust, loaves of bread are carved into objects including bones, a dead elephant, an unfortunate ocean liner, and placed over open atlases reminding us that too often our universal requirement for even our most basic food is set against a backdrop of political conflict and the flux of national borders.

In a display case nearby heavy opaque crystals appear to be born of corrugated cardboard with its tell-tale ridges and imperfections of the cheap cast remaining. Unlike real crystals that are beautiful, translucent, precious products of the earth and treasured symbols of timelessness these lumps of man-made bronze emerge from piles of newspapers. By setting them against the ephemeral celebrity-filled trivia and vagaries of daily news with its shocking headlines, Hall has literally and figuratively ‘re-cast’ these dull crystal-like forms to be as expendable as the pulp of newsprint.

A number of works reference media magnate and political power broker, Rupert Murdoch. His characteristically craggy face adorns a clock beneath the text News of the fukt world, and features inside a kaleidoscopic peep-show titled Hack, displaying miniature placards announcing impending doom.

Wrong Way Time curator Linda Michael writes in the excellent exhibition catalogue that the issues Hall addresses through her works are the three intersecting global concerns of global politics, world finances and the environment. Hall neatly contains her feelings in the description of these failed states, as a minefield of madness, badness and sadness, in equal measure. It’s also possible to find hope for the future of humanity in this overwhelming vision of despair.

Australian Pavilion
The Australian pavilion houses Australia’s national representation during the Venice Biennale arts festivals. The Australian pavilion was designed in 1987 by the Australia Council’s Design Arts Board and constructed by 1988. The two-level single exhibition space includes a veranda-style entrance with a courtyard constructed around a pre-existing tree. This connection between internal space and landscape was designed to relate to architectural themes in Australia. The curvature of the pavilion’s sheet metal roof is meant to invoke a wave.

The original Australian Pavilion, designed by Philip Cox to be a temporary structure of fiber cement and steel, was opened in 1988 at the western edge of the Giardini. Italian-born Australian industrialist Franco Belgiorno-Nettis had previously lobbied so successfully that in 1988 Australia beat 16 other countries to the last site on which to build a permanent pavilion in the Giardini. Cox and other generous donors gifted the pavilion to the Commonwealth Government.

The pavilion was not heritage protected because of its temporary status. A new, permanent pavilion was designed by architectural practice Denton Corker Marshall and completed in 2015. Built from concrete and steel, the two-story structure contains 240 square meters of exhibition space and the exterior is covered in black granite from Zimbabwe. Australia’s participation at the Venice Biennale is managed by the Australia Council for the Arts. However, all of the A$6 million ($6.04 million) originally needed for the new building were to be raised from the private sector. Eventually, the pavilion cost $7.5 million to build, $1 million of which was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts; the rest was donated by 82 private Australian donors, including actress Cate Blanchett and producer Santo Cilauro.

Venice Biennale 2015
The 2015 Art Biennale closes a sort of trilogy that began with the exhibition curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, Illuminations, and continued with the Encyclopedic Palace of Massimiliano Gioni (2013). With All The World’s Futures, La Biennale continues its research on useful references for making aesthetic judgments on contemporary art, a “critical” issue after the end of the avant-garde and “non-art” art.

Through the exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, La Biennale returns to observe the relationship between art and the development of human, social and political reality, in the pressing of external forces and phenomena: the ways in which, that is, the tensions of the external world solicit the sensitivities, the vital and expressive energies of the artists, their desires, the motions of the soul (their inner song ).

La Biennale di Venezia was founded in 1895. Paolo Baratta has been its President since 2008, and before that from 1998 to 2001. La Biennale, who stands at the forefront of research and promotion of new contemporary art trends, organizes exhibitions, festivals and researches in all its specific sectors: Arts (1895), Architecture (1980), Cinema (1932), Dance (1999), Music (1930), and Theatre (1934). Its activities are documented at the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts (ASAC) that recently has been completely renovated.

The relationship with the local community has been strengthened through Educational activities and guided visits, with the participation of a growing number of schools from the Veneto region and beyond. This spreads the creativity on the new generation (3,000 teachers and 30,000 pupils involved in 2014). These activities have been supported by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. A cooperation with Universities and research institutes making special tours and stays at the exhibitions has also been established. In the three years from 2012-2014, 227 universities (79 Italian and 148 international) have joined the Biennale Sessions project.

In all sectors there have been more research and production opportunities addressed to the younger generation of artists, directly in contact with renowned teachers; this has become more systematic and continuous through the international project Biennale College, now running in the Dance, Theatre, Music, and Cinema sections.