Cabinets, clocks and curiosities: Sarah St Vincent Welch reviews ‘Wrong Way Time’ by Fiona Hall

Wrong Way Time by Fiona Hall is on at The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until July 10, 2016. 


Fiona Hall’s Wrong Way Time is the first exhibition of the artist representing Australia at the Venice Biennale to be completely reinstalled and exhibited back home for the Australian public to experience. It is on at The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra until 10 July, 2016, and entrance to the exhibition is free. It is a huge work of one of our major and beloved artists, made up of around 1363 objects. Most of the series within it are new, created with a myriad of media and by many methods. It is housed in a single darkened room that contains a structure of wooden display cabinets lit from within, and the viewer can walk around, behind, and into their centre, engaging with the works in the cabinets from both sides. They are Cabinets of Curiosities, or a Wunderkammer, and recall for me early experiences of natural history museums and eccentric arrays of objects in country folk art museums, though Wrong Way Time is the finest of art.

Everyone and everything converge in the warm light and darkness of its space. A sense of privacy and anonymity is created but also a sense of possible commune. Glancing up, another viewer may be framed on the other side of the cabinet. When I last visited the exhibition was filled with quiet chatter and excitement; marked by the occasional chime of a clock, (from the over thirty clock installations), a mechanical cuckoo’s absurd call, a crow’s caw.


On my first visit it was difficult to move from the cabinet facing the entrance, I was so struck by Crust, the sculptures made of baked white bread laid out on open atlases. The sensual, gut response I had to the rubble of the bombed apartment building strewn on the map of Syria, the elephant carcass, the machine gun made of bread, held me there, wondering over their conception, their making, and my intense and immediate response to them. I peered down and up into the cabinet, and caught the reflection of a crusty MacDonald’s double arches on the top shelf. While chatting to the security guard who had joined me, we agreed the bread called to our childhood memories, of bread and jam, school lunches, and the basic need of staple food for all. We peered in, checking which countries were on the maps. The vision in Wrong Way Time is global and political, but not didactic. Here it is. This is what it is. Where it is. Make connections. Talk about it.


Tender is a series of birds’ nests made of shredded American dollar notes. The serial numbers of the notes are etched on the glass cabinet that contain them, as are lists of the bird species’ scientific names. The nests are exquisite, and accurately constructed. Through this cabinet All the Kings’ Men can be seen, ‘figures’ knitted from soldiers’ camouflage uniforms from different nations, suspended in the centre space of the cabinet structure. They seem tribal and darkly humorous, grotesque. Their shadows cast twirls of lacing patterns on the floor. The figures are marked with details; a flag, a horn, a die, a billiard ball. A circular map on the wall behind Tender, at first seems a bejewelled exotic chart, but with surprise the viewer comes to realise the jewels are car headlamp casings, warm orange, and glowing. In the Venice Biennale this was a map of our southern skies, but this particular ‘clock’ has been recast for the NGA setting. What can be glimpsed through, between, over, what is reflected, and can be seen around, adds to the sense of discovery that leads the viewer through this exhibition. It asks us to connect, to interrogate the installations, to discuss them.

Money is a recurring medium and symbol in Hall’s work and is prominent in this exhibition too. The series Where the wind blows added to my initial inability to move past that cabinet at the entrance, I was so amused and appalled by the determined sperm painted on the bank notes swimming in isobar patterns across their dictator’s portraits. This work is potent with value and nationhood, masculinity, humour and dread. An extensive series of banknotes When my boat comes fills the cabinet opposite the back wall, depicting floating vessels of many kinds, painted with leaves of plants from that country (of trading value) recalling traditions of botanic art. This intricate, delicate, and extensive series references and points to so many currents; trade, exploitation, economies, labour, and nature.

image of bank notes with sperm painted in gouache swimming across the the portraits of dictators

The walls are lined with clocks whose surfaces are transformed with quotes, slogans, tally marks and faces, in the series Wrong Way Time, Big Game Hunting and Out of My Tree. The hall clocks, mantel clocks, and cuckoo clocks frame the cabinets, and create a passage around them, and feel ever present. They suggest we have passed the ‘tipping point’ in the crises in our environment, in our climate, our global politics, our inequities.

Endings are the new beg

A clock-like installation, Manuhiri (Traveller), illuminates the far corner. It is made of driftwood collected on the beach at Awanui on Aotearoa, New Zealand’s North East Cape, at the mouth of Waiapu River. Each piece of wood is shaped like an animal, and together they suggest a mandala, or a constellation.

Kuka irititja (Animals from another time) is a collaborative work with members of the Tjumpi Desert Weavers of the Central and Western Desert region of Australia. Hall, with 12 women artists from this group, wove animals from this area that are endangered or now extinct. Whenever Hall speaks of this collaboration it is with great affection and connection with the other artists. Made of grass and many sundry materials, even camouflage uniforms (which provide a binding thread with ‘All The Kings Men’), the animal characters seem like guardians at the exit and entrance.

The exhibition is so generous, so layered and fecund that I have taken up camp there in my mind, blown up a metaphorical lilo and lain back to continue my thinking about it, possibly forever. Wrong Way Time invites this level of engagement. I can’t stop talking about it.

– Sarah St Vincent Welch


Sarah St Vincent Welch grew up swimming in Middle Harbour and now loves walking on Mt Majura. She teaches creative writing in the community. She co-edited The Pearly Griffin – the story of the old Griffin Centre with Lizz Murphy, and two short story anthologies – The Circulatory System and Time Pieces with Craig Cormick. She also co-edited FIRST: Surrender with Francesca Rendle-Short in 2007 (a student anthology at the University of Canberra). Her chapbook Open will be published by  Rochford Street Press later this year.

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