Some stories are too large, too confronting, too incomprehensible to be contained by language. Fiona Hall is known for her intricate, and often labour intensive, sculptural installations which use both materials and processes as storytelling strategies.
The Hobart-based artist currently has two new site-responsive works on show in Sydney: EXODUST in The National at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) until 5 September, and Who goes here? at Hyde Park Barracks until 30 May. At first glance it seems like the artist is tackling very different issues in these installations (environmental devastation and the cycles of life in the former, identity and untold histories in the latter) but both can also be read as meditations on the ongoing toxic legacy of colonisation.
Hall was commissioned to make Who goes here? by Sydney Living Museums to address their 2021 theme, ‘reflections on identity.’ In response the artist selected 300 of the thousands of people who passed through Hyde Park Barracks between 1819 and 1887. Some were male convicts ‘transported’ against their will, others were female economic migrants forced to leave Ireland as potatoes rotted and starvation threatened, and a few were the men who held the keys and wielded power over them all.
Each of these individuals is represented in Who goes here? by a ubiquitous looking wooden signpost hand painted with their names, a brief description of how or why they came to be at the barracks, and the distance in kilometres from their place of origin. It’s easy to get distracted by the pettiness of some of the crimes – and the disproportionate cruelty of the punishment – or by the sheer number of the dispossessed.
But Hall’s signposts (which overwhelmingly point both north and west) also point to the fact that this is the history of an invasion. If ‘transportation’ is a euphemism used to mask a much less pleasant reality, so too is ‘colonisation.’ Each and every one of Hall’s signs also mimics a stiff flag planted to claim sovereignty over territory that was already occupied. This land was seized. The individuals named here, despite being dispossessed themselves, represent the ongoing dispossession of the First Nations of this continent, and the repercussions of that violence are still being felt. This too is our history, part of our identity, our national story.
Hall’s EXODUST, at AGNSW as part of The National: New Australian Art, also can be read as a tale of invasion and of an attempt to dominate gone horrible wrong. Here the artist has filled the grand neoclassical entry vestibule of the gallery with charred remains of trees, once living entities now burned to a crisp.
Like many (most?) Australians, Hall seems to have been shocked and saddened (words wholly inadequate to the task of describing our collective trauma, of telling this story) by the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020. The stated aim of her installation is to draw attention to the estimated three billion species that were decimated by the fires, a number impossible to truly comprehend.
Alongside burned bits of tree, Hall presents a scorched wooden baby’s cradle and a blackened coffin sprouting a live seedling; an obvious nod to regeneration and the inevitable cycles of life.
That the title EXODUST brings to mind the biblical tropes of plague, punishment and judgement is surely not a coincidence; Hall is far too seasoned a storyteller for that. Which begs the question, who is being judged? The charred books which line the walls of the neoclassical alcoves seem to provide a clue. These singed tomes (once themselves living trees) are scrawled with the names of species driven to extinction by the fires. And significantly these names are written in Latin, the European language of taxonomy.
In this context, taxonomy and its Latin nomenclature can be read as symbols of the broader European Enlightenment project, which, driven by the desire to classify and control, to claim through naming, to subjugate and possess, fuelled settler culture and the dispossession of untold indigenous peoples worldwide. And this same mindset – a belief that nature is a resource that can dominated and should be exploited – has fuelled the climate crisis. Our recent fires were but a herald of an ongoing environmental catastrophe of almost unimaginable magnitude. EXODUST is not a subtle work, but the time for subtlety may be past.
Neither EXODUST nor Who goes here? are telling pleasant tales. Instead, Hall is using the ineffable language of art to render heart breaking and confronting narratives into sculptural installations; she is telling stories we need to hear.