Artist interview: Fiona Hall

Published in Art Collector’s special edition for Art Basel Hong Kong 2014

"Fiona Hall" by Jane O'Sullivan in Art Collector

Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery is presenting a series of your tins at Art Basel Hong Kong. When and why did you first start working with the tins? Why have you returned to them now?

I began working with the tins back in 1989 and that first series is now in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s quite a nice metal and I’ve worked with it on and off since then.

The work that Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery is taking to Hong Kong, it’s called Fleet and it’s a set of 12 tins of various varieties of seafood, of slightly different sizes from different companies and so on. The work was made for an environmental project that was funded by an American philanthropic organisation called Pew to try and persuade the New Zealand government not to mine the Kermadec Trench which runs between Auckland and Tonga – it’s the fissure between the Australasian and Pacific tectonic plates … There’s a lot of volcanic activity down there and there are also a lot of sea creatures, many of which are unknown to science as they say … the area’s been assessed as being one of the three most pristine marine environments left on the planet.

There’s gold and precious metals in the active volcanoes in the trench so that’s why there’s a fair bit of pressure on the New Zealand government with international mining companies wanting permits.

The environmental representative working for Pew in New Zealand decided to send a number of artists off on a voyage on a navy ship from Auckland to Tonga sailing over the trench. I was invited to go on that back in 2011 … Fleet was made as part of that project so the fact that they’re fish cans of course has a great deal of logic in the context.

The other aspect of the work is that each tin has a shipping flag … which before the days of electronic communication were imperative because you’d put up a flag to send a message to another ship. The particular flags on the tins are things like ‘I’m in danger’ and ‘I need help’, so these flags send all sorts of messages including some messages of distress.

I’m interested in your thoughts on artists working with assistants, which I understand you choose not to do despite the long hours involved in producing your works.

That seems to be a question or an issue that I certainly get asked about. I don’t know that artists who work with assistants get asked why they work with assistants. It’s more like the ones who don’t, who make hands-on work, who seem to be asked about that. In some ways I think it’s an odd question. I think suddenly we’ve entered an era where everything is outsourced. There’s an expectation that artists get stuff outsourced and I know there is a hell of a lot of that … [but] there are also a hell of a lot of artists who just make their own work, in the way that I predominantly do. So I don’t think I’m unusual really even though it seems every time I have to give a public talk that question is asked.

The other thing I’ll say is that however an artwork comes into being it’s the potency of the artwork that’s important, not so much who made it. But I think often the potency of artwork that’s actually made by the artist, rather than if they had just handed an idea over to somebody else, I would dare to say it might be more what the artist intended.

You will be the Australian representative at the Venice Biennale in 2015, a huge undertaking in anyone’s estimation. How do you feel about the task ahead of you? What are you considering for the work?

It’s a huge undertaking for whoever does Venice. The opening date for next year’s Venice has been pushed earlier so I’m not just considering what I’m going to do, I’m having to do it, that is the short answer to the question.

Fleet by Fiona Hall is presented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery at Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery is in Sydney, Australia.

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