City Gallery Wellington
July 12-October 19 | Reviewed by Thomasin Sleigh

THE Fiona Hall show is cohesive. Cette exposition est cohérent. I went to the show with my friend for our French conversation class. Now botanical imagery, colonial ambition, and struggling to find the right French verb are inextricably bound together in my mind. Perhaps this isn’t such an irrelevant collection of ideas for a Fiona Hall exhibition. Force Field deals with the transference of information between the cultures, and as an English-born Zimbabwean living in New Zealand learning to speak French I am often amused by the complexities of my situation. C’est drôle, n’est pas?

When I say cohérent I mean there are strong thematic strands which can be unavoidably traced across all the work in Force Field. And this is a large show; it takes up the whole gallery and canvasses Hall’s practice from the 1970s through to the present day. Force Field is tightly curated – another contributing factor to its cohérence. But I get the feeling that regardless of the selection of works Hall’s practice doesn’t stray far from the specificity of this artist’s interests. Hall is a photographer and a sculptor and collector of everyday objects; beads, tin cans, wax, money and plastic bottles, which she puts to new use as signifiers in the opposition of nature and culture.

Nature/culture. Nature/culture (imagine it in a French accent). Art historically speaking, is this a tired debate? It is certainly one with no real resolution. As much as romantic painter William Turner wanted to, he couldn’t really be directly attached to the natural world, uninhibited by his human subjectivity. Force Field doesn’t try and simplify this argument but rather dwells on the tension between human power and nature’s complexity. Works such as the sardine tin sculpture series Paradisus terrestris on the ground floor of the gallery combine specific body parts, often genitalia (le pénis, le vagin), with equally specific plants and flowers growing insidiously out of the top. A relationship between man/woman and plant is suggested here. But it is a necessarily mediated and contained one.

These works reminded me strongly of Christchurch artist Zina Swanson’s delicate drawings of amalgamated human and plant forms. Something that Swanson hits on and Hall seems to avoid is a sense of the macabre and the danger inherent in this alliance.

Much of the work is presented as ethnological evidence in glass cases and vitrines – the art takes on an air of scientific fact and assurance of its validity. This is neatly disrupted when you realize that you are looking at a sculpture made of soap (le savon), an ephemeral substance used to clean until it disappears down the drain.

Much has been made of Hall’s new work for this exhibition, Mourning Chorus (2007-2008). This piece deals with the extinction of a number of New Zealand’s native bird species (les oiseaux indigènes). In this heavily symbolic work Hall has stuck the cast beaks of New Zealand birds onto empty plaster bottles of car oil, cleaning fluid and the like. From the punning title to the coffin shaped box to the black painted gallery walls, Mourning Chorus doesn’t leave much room for open interpretation. This work is cloyingly didactic and perhaps is a good example of why I didn’t entirely enjoy Force Field (aside from the fact that I spent most of the time incoherently articulating myself in French). In its repetition and minute attention to detail, I find Hall’s work loses a level of ambiguity and suggestion that I find most appealing in art.