Fiona Hall once said that looking at art was hard work. Gallery-goers needed a place of respite, she said, to retreat to upon emerging from an exhibition – a place to re-interact with nature. When she was commissioned to create a fern garden at the National Gallery of Australia in 1998, this was her intention, to create a fertile, living space for contemplation.
You can see the tops of her ferns – Dickson antarctica tree ferns, one of Australia's most ancient plants – if you glance out the windows of the gallery's temporary exhibition space. But, in the space's current incarnation, treetops won't distract you for long, not when the entire space has been transformed into a different Hall creation. Or, rather, a breathtaking series of creations and installations, made up of hundreds of disparate objects and themes.
It's been almost a year since Hall represented Australia at the 56th Venice Biennale – the first artist to show work in the new Australian Pavilion there. Her exhibition, Wrong Way Time, made waves in the international arts community, and if you happened to see it, you would understand why. But most Australians didn't make it to Venice last year, so the NGA, for the first time, is showing Hall's Biennale exhibition in full, alongside a series of earlier works from the gallery's collection.
Wrong Way Time, curated by Linda Michael, is almost exactly the same as the Venice version, displayed in a large, dark space with hundreds of illuminated objects. It's a tough, dramatic and thought-provoking show that raises important questions about the world. And that's how Hall has always worked – bringing elements together into confined spaces, but relating them very much to the outside world.
The installation has been no mean feat, with more than 800 objects to unpack and place, according to Hall's intricate narrative. And, on a Wednesday morning, the artist herself is in no mood for quiet contemplation. She's standing in the space, now chaotic and soon to be transformed to embody her intersecting concerns and clarity of vision. Crates are being unpacked, and cabinets constructed. The show's opening is a week away and, to the casual onlooker, madness reigns. But there's a sense of levity in the air, of bustling purpose and excitement. Hall – in jeans, with her long silver hair hanging loose – is brandishing what looks to be a piece of bone, and laughing. Behind her, on a black-painted wall, looms a huge installation of similarly mysterious objects.
Moment later, seated in the gallery's outdoor cafe, Hall is understandably on edge, deep in the throes of the complicated process of overseeing the unpacking and rearranging of her work. But, she says, this install is nothing on Venice. All the problem-solving and trouble-shooting and crisis management have been solved this second time around, with twice the number of people to work through it all, and a far less-looming deadline.
But, given the exhibition's most recent foray, it seems both trite and necessary to ask: How was Venice?
"It seemed to go well, the response seemed to be good," Hall says, cautiously.
"I was pretty gutted afterwards because I was totally exhausted, but I don't really feel it's for me to say how it went, because when you make work, it's out there in the public domain, whoever and wherever the public domain is. It could be Canberra, it could be an international venue or wherever, but when you do something, when it's on display, you have to relinquish control over it, more or less.
"You still take responsibility for it, but whether it sinks or swims … you can't stand and protect your works."
The works themselves are spectacular – the culmination of a lifelong habit of making and collecting, of thinking deeply about global politics, money and the environment, of questioning the giant ecosystems that humans have created. Fairfax art critic John McDonald, who reviewed the Biennale last year, described Hall's show as "an amazing, fastidious performance. There were altered sardine cans, knitted masks dangling from the ceiling, painted clocks, collages of bank notes decorated with delicate watercolours, miniature houses made from bread, shredded US dollar bills, biomorphic tree roots, and dozens of small animals produced in collaboration with the Tjanpi weavers of Central Australia."
For those familiar with Hall's work, this list resonates: one of her most famous works, after all, is Paradisus Terestris, a series of sardine tins that have been intricately altered to reveal aluminium plants and human erogenous zones sprouting from the pulled-back lids. Indeed, the poster that displays these works on a black background has long adored the walls of Australian homes, whose occupants delight in the surprise and humour that can emanate from such a mundane object.
Hall isn't surprised that this is her most-loved work – the gallery is even reissuing the poster in a larger format to coincide with the exhibition – but she is interested that, in a career spanning 40 years, which has included photography, sculpture, painting and installation, one work, in particular, would stand out.
"When you make a body of work, it's not like you disregard it, it's like water under a bridge," she says.
"You learn from everything you do, and everything you do points you in new directions, or helps to shape the direction your practice is generally going."
This work, along with her series of painted banknotes, Leaflitter, and other well-known pieces, will form part of a parallel show Wrong Way Time. Deborah Hart, the gallery's senior curator of Australian paintings and sculpture art, has a long-time association with Hall's work, and has been overseeing the separate exhibition of earlier pieces.
"What I tried to do with the second room, which was really in consultation with the other senior curators, is to look at works from our collection in different media, and we already have a really strong collection of Fiona's work going right back to the 70s and 80s," she says.
There are also some loaned works in the show, to create links between what would otherwise seem to be disparate elements.
"She's very much somebody who collects, very much an avid collector of things," Hart says. Certain themes and concepts are repeated or reworked over the years – the sardine tins, for example, and the banknotes.
"There's a part of the exhibition which relates to her interest in botany, so I tried to have this grouping of works that relate to real and metaphorical gardens," she says.
"We have a fantastic work by her called Leaflitter … where there are all the banknotes with depictions of botanical specimens on each of the notes, and the botanical paintings on each note relate to the origin of the country of that banknote. It's a really fantastic work and it really relates to ideas about the movement of plants around the world and economics."
It's a work that, by the time the gallery acquired it, was still, literally growing – Hall was still working on it until she felt satisfied.
"It relates to all different countries around the world, so it seemed to fit in really beautifully with the ideas in Wrong Way Time," Hart says.
"There's very much the sense of getting us to think about the issues that are facing us in the world today, but also I guess very much a consummate maker, in the way that she creates things, and she makes everything herself in terms of those woven and painted works."
She says watching the show take shape in the newly transformed space has been something of a delight. From the tiny, individual components of a vast cabinet of curiosities, to the hanging of a series of suspended heads woven in camouflage material, she says it's impossible not to marvel at the kind of mind that has conceived of such things.
And people will marvel, even if they may find themselves seeking out Hall's tranquil fern garden afterwards. But Hall herself is wary of trying to second-guess the public reaction to her work.
"Audiences everywhere are incredibly diverse. I've realised that over the years," she says.
"You never take for granted who you think your audience is going to be, because you'll definitely have it incorrect."
In Venice, for example, with a necessarily broad array of art lovers, critics and tourists, the most surprising response she got to her work was from the local Venetians.
She says that by any measure, being chosen as Australia's representative in Venice is a career pinnacle.
"It really is – it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it's a huge challenge," she says.
"I cannot tell you what a humungous challenge it is, and I think that artist who Australians send probably has felt the immensity of that challenge. You cannot escape it because it is such a huge opportunity and a huge audience and platform."
She says an artist can't help but be changed by such an experience. But, by the same token, an artist who is sufficiently engaged with the world should be changed by any experience, no matter how small.
"Certainly every time you do something, you're changed by it, because that's part of the creative exploration," she says.
"I always think whatever the opportunities that come your way, if you decide to take up the opportunity large or small, you take everything equally as seriously. So certainly Venice was a major challenge, and I certainly took it really seriously, because you realise that you have a lot riding on it, not just with your own reputation as an artist, but also [because] Venice doesn't happen without a huge amount of input and philanthropy from a lot of Australian citizens …
"Having said that, my philosophy is that I would take everything equally seriously, even though the occasion and the venue might be different. If you're going to spend time in your life engaged by something, you give it your best shot, put it that way."
And, despite the "short, frantic" installation period that is a necessary part of an artist's life, she is always working.
"It keeps you engaged with life, really," she says.
"I think for artists, scientists, all sorts of creative thinkers, the world is an ever-changing place, as troubling as it might be in so many ways, there's always so many new things to be engaged by as well."
Wrong Way Time, by Fiona Hall, is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until July 10.