Wrong Way Time
What kind of person goes to the same exhibition three times?
What kind of exhibition draws you in thrice yet leaves you unassured as to what you think?
The answer to the former is, of course, me.
I’m a sucker for everything kooky and anything free, so Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time was always likely to be catnip to my enfeebled-feline(loving)-mind. Therein too lies the answer to the latter.
It is rare that a show leaves me so enthralled and yet so befuddled.
Certain only that I was clutching at less than what was available, I didn’t dare write about Wrong Way Time for weeks after first viewing.
Even now, having been twice more and perused the catalogue, I still have a lingering sense that some critical understanding ducks and weaves just out of sight. (Of course, when I say perused the catalogue, we should be clear that I mean the harshly-over-lit photos only since not even in my confusion am I masochistic enough to seek out the quicksand-of-commissioned-academic-whimsy that holds the pictures apart.)
I still wasn’t sure. And then I realised. This feeling, of something missing, of being uncomfortably off-balance, of uncertainty - this was one of the most successful things about Wrong Way Time.
It defies easy digestion.
It rejects the wrapping of its content into neat & tidy bows.
It challenges you and tricks your eyes and leads you around in a merry chase of suspended reality and awe. And while the chase goes deep down the rabbit hole, the physical exertion is unlikely to tire. (In contrast to the eight-room all-wood-panelled extravaganza of Tom Roberts earlier in the year, Fiona Hall is a tidy two rooms. One is filled with the work exhibited at the Australian Pavilion as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale while the other is filled with works from the NGA’s own extensive collection of Hall’s work.)
Don’t let size fool you though; Wrong Way Time packs quite the punch.
The black-walled space is low-lit and reminiscent of entering a darkened curio shop, on the walls various clocks chime differently kept hours. In the centre of the space a ring of antique cabinetry forms a square which reads as both defensive and inviting – keep out, keep out, but come closer, look, don’t touch, but look more, further, fall into these here and now. It's no wonder that the soundtrack of the exhibition, along with the chiming cuckoo's, is the piercing wail of the proximity alarm; so repeatedly triggered by the enthusiasm of attendees that it almost forms a bass line to the show.
In the very centre of the square swings possibly the strangest fruit in the show – the aptly named ‘All the king’s men’; a motley collection of moth-eaten and dog-chewed knitted military uniforms which have been cobbled together with wire, boxing gloves and bits of animal bone, horns and teeth to create 18 distinct and dystopic mastheads which breezily blow between the rifts of colonisation and capitalism; ribs askance and jaw-bones clicking chattily in the breeze.
One quickly realises that Hall works through repetition, creating whole series where other artists may opt for a single iteration. To her credit, this impulse is largely a boon; the fervour of the individual pieces echo of each other, strengthening the assemblage as a whole.
‘Kuka irititja (Animals from another time)’ is one such; a collaborative endeavour with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers the work features a compilation of various real and imagined animal and anamorphic forms woven in natural fibres and unreal colours positioned atop charcoaled stumps of the British Museum’s General Catalogue of Printed Books.
Speaking also to the destruction of the natural world for profit is ‘Tender’ – dozens of delicately hand-woven anatomically-correct birds’ nests festooned with centimetre-thick strips of American currency. Housed behind the sheet glass of the vitrine, the nests are enclosed in their singular location and fixed in their meaning as anthropological testament to the cataloguing inclement of the destructive swell of colonisation.
Part of me was so charmed by the pathos of the nameless bowers that I couldn’t help but stop and imagine the birds that might live there, making their homes amongst the green. It was a inevitable but jarring realisation to recognise that the nests, for all their attraction, are not preserved forms of life - but forms that ape the possibly while being, in the very essence of the materiality, dead.
Surprisingly full of life – indeed, begging to be prised from the wall and taken home - are Hall’s sardine boxes. These little gems, forming the ‘Paradisus Terrestris’ series, match flora on the roof of the tin (e.g. a prickly pear) with an act of fornication below in the tin itself. The delicately rendered silver forms mirror and play with each other with charming frankness and you would be hard pressed to go through the series (and truly, you do want to give each one the time it deserves) without a giggle or three.
My favourite is the black boy.
Indeed the only thing that stilled my arm from an attempted heist was the knowledge of just how sharp such aluminium is and how likely these forms are to cut the hand that caresses them (duly out of turn).
Typically, that element of danger only increased my ardour for them – perhaps I’ll make it back a fourth time, gloves at the ready.
Fiona Hall's Wrong Way Time is on now till 10 July 2016 at the National Gallery of Australia and is well worth the price of admission. Admission is free for all. Go once, go twice, go right now.