A popular way of praising an Australian artist is to proclaim that his or work should be better known overseas. It’s ironic that Hobart-based artist, Patrick Hall, is probably better known overseas than he is on the other side of Bass Strait. Steven Joyce of Despard Gallery has shown Hall’s work at the renowned Chicago art fair, Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art (SOFA) on a regular basis. In 2001 Hall became the first non-American artist to feature on the cover of the exhibition catalogue.
The reason Hall (b.1962) was a hit at this fair may be the same reason he has not been pursued more avidly by Australia’s leading (non-Tasmanian) art institutions, aside from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and the National Gallery of Australia. Quite simply, he has been viewed as a maker of furniture rather than sculpture, and therefore beyond the scope of galleries that don’t have dedicated collections of applied arts. It would be more accurate to characterise his work as an unclassifiable hybrid of many different disciplines.
Hall studied furniture making and printmaking at the University of Tasmania Centre for the Arts in the 1980s, and has continued to make objects that combine elements of furniture, sculpture, printmaking, installation, assemblage, and even literature. These pieces are distinguished by fine craftsmanship, wit and invention. He has a particular fondness for things that have been broken, discarded or superceded; for old wires and circuits, bits of broken pottery, plastic slide mounts, nails, books and animal bones. Each piece of detritus becomes a crucial component in a work in which interpretation is closely tied to the choice of materials.
In the catalogue of Things I Once Knew – Hall’s 2015 survey at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, curator Peter Hughes calls this an “iconography of redundancy”. It denotes a nostalgia for those objects that have been rendered superfluous by the forward march of technology. In Hall’s hands these objects are repurposed into elaborate new configurations.
It is second nature for the artist to relate technology to humanity. Circuits and wires are arranged in the form of the human nervous system in pieces such as They Lay Me Down (2013) and Depth of field (2014). Freestanding cabinets are treated as analogues for the human body.
Many people have made their first acquaintance with Hall’s work through David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. When MONA opened in 2011 one of the most talked-about pieces was Hall’s When My Heart Stops Beating, which had been specially commissioned to go with Walsh’s ‘sex and death’ theme. Unlike so many items in that first hang, which dealt with the bare facts of human biology, Hall’s work looked at the emotional, intangible aspects of love. The piece is a typical Hall combo of sculpture and furniture – a large cabinet in which each of 54 drawers features a cut version of an old LP record. Upon opening the drawers, one hears a voice saying “I love you”. There are also small stories concealed inside the drawers – tiny vignettes written by the artist.
Like so much of Hall’s work, When My Heart Stops Beating is genuinely surprising. It is first and foremost a piece of furniture, and makes no attempt to disguise that identity. One could easily imagine socks or underwear stored in these drawers. Secondly, it addresses the viewer in a manner that is both intimate and universal. We all have life experiences of love – happy and unhappy, conjugal or familial. Those experiences are unique to each individual but broadly similar among all branches of humankind. The stories reinforce these impressions, individualising each drawer but prompting sympathetic echoes in the viewer. It is as if the drawers represent parts of the mind in which precious, private memories are stored.
The concentric circles of the LPs suggest the rings on a tree trunk that reveal its age. They also conjure up a vertiginous spiral that may be seen as a comment on the inexorable progress of time, or the vortex of love. To ‘fall in love’ is to lose control, to have one’s thoughts and feelings moved by an external force. Sex can be seen as a loss of self, a momentary extinguishing of the ego in union with another. Family is an emotional magnetic field from which there is no escape.
I dwell on this piece because it’s broadly representative of Hall’s methods. It is at once a feat of immaculate craftsmanship and a multi-layered work of art that keeps offering up new readings. As legible as any text but also open-ended, it is a filing cabinet for the many different manifestations of love, an impossible attempt to collect and classify epiphanies.
In the modern era artists have been almost phobic about making anything that seemed too ‘literary’, as if story-telling somehow spoilt the purity of a work of art. Hall takes the opposite approach, seeing stories as a central part of his endeavours. They feature prominently in his latest piece, If They Should Accidentally Fall, which was shown in June this year at Hobart’s Narryna Heritage Museum during the Dark Mofo Festival. In September Despard Gallery will feature the work at the Sydney Contemporary art fair.
I saw the installation in a disassembled state in Hall’s studio in May but it was breathtaking in its ambition. It consists of a series of grotesque, humanoid forms constructed from a blend of man-made and natural materials, presented in flat glass-fronted cases. One figure has hands and feet made from piano keys, another is born from a squirming tangle of wires. One figure is made from twigs, another from feathers. Each has a photographically-distorted face that has been wrapped around a bottle, making it seem as if an angry spirit has been trapped inside.
The panels installed at Narryna featured the figures surrounded by stories written by the artist. Bottles dangled in rows, voices whispered and muttered. This is the way the work was described on the museum’s website: “Confessions in the dark. Overseen by their preachers or prophets, a congregation of bottled-up people whisper of longing and disappointment and the slow erosion of belief, the passing of time illuminated by the rhythm of a breath.”
The work is Hall’s response to a world in which extreme, irrational beliefs are making a comeback; where people’s latent anxieties are preyed upon by demogogues. The texts in these works are often urgent and breathless: “…through the blurred focus of tears come the rushes of beauty and horror, of the shadows that walk, of the dead that talk and the sweet dreams that scream your name.”
If They Should Accidentally Fall is as shamelessly theatrical as a horror movie, with elements that recall images by artists such as Christian Boltanski and Tony Oursler. It is a dark work for dark times – a multi-layered, multi-media tour-de-force designed to get under the viewer’s skin. It is also a testament to a hand-made aesthetic in which every form is the result of concentrated, meditative work in the studio, not made-to-order in a factory. Hall values that tactile methodology, which allows his imagination to roam freely as a piece evolves. He turns around the standard assumption that the machine is the enemy of craftsmanship. In Hall’s work it is craftsmanship that rescues the broken relics of successive waves of technological advance. He demonstrates that nothing is really useless, devoid of beauty or function. In skilfully crafted objects that are part sculpture and part text he presents the work of art as a Pandora’s box in which we are invited to search for the forgotten residues of our own hopes, fears and dreams.
Published in Artist Profile 48, July 2019