Through the black heavy curtains underground at Mona, it takes a second to regain your senses. Ashen debris, dust and ochre line a landscape of utter degradation, with blackened tree trunks and charred, hacked stumps, and the meaty, smoky smell of bushfire singeing your nostrils.
At the back of the space sits a small burnt-out hut, filled with pointed new works from the acclaimed Australian artist Fiona Hall, who – with her collaborator AJ King – is behind one of three major installations which opened at the gallery this weekend for Dark Mofo festival.
Titled Exodust – Crying Country, it includes Hall’s meticulous tin sculptures of decimated trees and penises, and the evolving work Crumb: An Atlas of Ruins of our Time, for which the multitalented sculptor cuts scenes of global tragedy into loaves of bread (Ukraine is still a work in progress, she says).
But the broken landscape that surrounds Exodust is as much a part of this show – and it wouldn’t have happened without King: a Bigambul/Wakka Wakka cultural practitioner born in lutruwita (Tasmania) who invited members of his family and the Tasmanian Indigenous community to take part.
“What’s sitting behind the power of this emulation of country is the people that spent the time harvesting,” King says, as we walk slowly through the sombre room. “We were on logging coupes, down on ancient country. I had my family down there, my children, lots of community people down there, and we were just standing on remnants of stumps that were of trees probably 400 or 500 years old.”
Over three weeks, they gathered the burnt soil, Eucalyptus regnans stumps and branches, and lakri (man ferns), bringing them to the gallery and piecing the wrecked country back together. It’s a multisensorial recreation of the trauma that the forestry industry continues to wreak across lutruwita: first by the logging, and then by the high intensity burns that are ignited to devour the aftermath.
“These trees had suffered significantly over multiple generations, from the time white men first stepped on that country,” King says. “So for us to be on this country that had been just desecrated, not just once but consistently – burnt in ways that permanently scarred the landscape – we felt that pain every day we went down there.”
Hall, who moved to Tasmania seven years ago, says “forest genocide is in the Tasmanian psyche”.
“A lot of visitors from elsewhere may be aware of the logging, but not of the post-logging burning; the funeral pyre that happens after the logging. It’s like rubbing salt into a wound.”
It’s the second year in a row that Hall has collaborated with King for Dark Mofo. Last year, the festival weathered public outrage over a proposed artwork by the Spanish artist Sierra Santiago that required the blood of First Nations people; amid calls to boycott, some artists pulled out of the program – but Hall made a last-minute pivot instead, turning her space over to King and his community.
Together, they built a bark pakana cremation hut inside an abandoned shopfront, in which the local Aboriginal community came together to mourn, sleep, talk and weave. “It was a very powerful thing to do, to provide the space,” says King, who still sounds amazed it came together so quickly. “The one thing that fills my heart with pride is the resourcefulness of our people. We always look out for each other.”
As we walk slowly through the blackened forest, voices of Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers from Tasmania, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea murmur through the dead trees. In recordings, they talk about their culture, their families, and the impact of colonisation on country – and about cultural burning: a sustainable, traditional way of managing land “so that this sort of degradation doesn’t happen”, King says.
We arrive at the hut, built from stringybark harvested on country, and old burnt timber that’s getting a second life. In fact almost everything in this show is reused: Hall’s multifaceted career is defined as much by her craftsmanship as it is her passion for recycling. (“We all love going to the tip shops!” she enthuses.)
The shelter’s door is made of stacks of burnt books – philosophy, history, encyclopedias and great western works of literature – harvested from friend’s houses and junkyards. Burning these books, she says, was a remark on “the accumulation of ‘wisdom’ from a western world perspective, which is just going up in smoke”.
King has a slightly different read: “From a First Nations perspective, our knowledge is handed down verbally ... so for me it’s quite powerful to walk into the hut and see those books burnt, while simultaneously hearing knowledge being spoken by First Nations people [in the sound installation].”
If the doors lend the cabin a storybook quality, the wall at the back made of coloured plastic bottles evokes the stained glass windows of a chapel – which has a burnt wooden coffin at its centre. Inside, the cabin’s walls are lined with more charred books: these ones open on documentary photographs depicting war, despots, colonists and dictators (Adolf Hitler features, alongside scenes from Ukraine and the Vietnam war).
On shelves among them sit the ashy corpses of wood-carved animals – another lament to the destruction of man – as well as 13 new tin sculptures from Hall titled Split Infinitive, which have been acquired by Mona: gnarled and beautifully detailed trees, violently wrenched apart. A “big male appendage” features in all but one of them, which has a meticulously sculpted vulva instead. (“It’s like the 13th bad fairy at the Christening party,” she laughs, referring to the spurned woman who casts the spell on Sleeping Beauty.)
Hall has been making tin carvings for decades; they featured prominently in her exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale, which was restaged in Canberra in 2016. But in the past these sculptures featured living things – trees, flowers, wildlife – and now it’s all destruction.
“The broken trees for me, split asunder – it’s a metaphor for the lust for power at any cost, which seems to be driving the planet to extinction,” she says.
As for the penises, King finishes her thought: “A lot of that is driven by male ego and greed.”
The show may sound almost relentlessly bleak, but there’s hope here too. Above the coffin is a wooden cradle, and above that a rickety rope ladder reaching to the sky. It represents a precarious sort of rebirth, and redemption – so long as you’re willing to climb for it.
And then there’s the peppermint tree, growing tall and unlikely in this room under the ground. “The tree is the only sign of life in the entire installation,” King says. “It’s about strength of country and hope of a better future.”
Adorning the coffin like a flag and a medal are a timita (possum) skin cloak sewn by Aunty Michelle McNamara, and clapsticks made by King. “We’ve lost a lot, but there’s still a lot here,” King says. “And we are still here too.”