Fiona Hall for Venice

December 5, 2013
Fiona Hall, A selection of intricate sculptures carved from sardine cans, Royal Academy, London
Fiona Hall, A selection of intricate sculptures carved from sardine cans, Royal Academy, London

For more than 20 years Fiona Hall has been the obvious, dead-set, undeniable first choice to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. It is a testimony to the acumen of our arts bureaucracy that in 2015 she will become the first artist to occupy a newly-built pavilion. Any other country might have rushed her into this prestigious exhibition, but it seems we were holding her in reserve.

The story of Australia’s recent participation in the Biennale divides into two categories: questionable choices and hare-brained choices. Part of the problem is that the selection process had grown increasingly narrow and undemocratic, leaving many to believe hidden agendas were in play. To finally arrive at the bleedin’ obvious, the Australia Council had to appoint an advisory committee – this being one of those rare instances where a committee got it right.

When I worked at the National Gallery of Australia in a previous life, I often had to take visiting art celebrities around the collection. The only contemporary Australian artist who consistently attracted the attention of these overseas curators, art historians and museum directors, was Fiona Hall – whether it was for her eroticised sardine can sculptures or her enclosed fern garden at the back of the gallery.

Fiona Hall, Fern Garden, Canberra

Fiona Hall, Fern Garden, Canberra

It has been Hall’s remarkable versatility over a long period of time that has made her work so impressive. Beginning as a photographer, she soon progressed to large-scale installations, sculptures, and even horticulture. She deals with big themes – the environment, the relations between culture and capital, the legacies of colonialism, and so on, but never in a dogmatic fashion. Instead, Hall’s pieces are notable for their wry humour and inventiveness. She takes an oblique view and asks us to join the dots.

In a world in which leading artists employ teams of assistants in virtual factories, Hall’s work is doggedly hand-made and labour-intensive. Some would call it obsessive compulsive.

The only concern is that artists, like sporting heroes, can reach a peak in their work or suffer lapses in form. Hall, however, has shown herself to be the kind of personality that rises to a challenge. After so many years of being unfairly passed over, it’s to be hoped next year will find the artist at the top of her game.