1 February – 7 February 1988

Dante’s blazing and dazzling visions rise out of the tight or flexible harmonics of his prosody. As in the metaphor in Paradiso, of “one who has the sun in one’s face [but] still has to look with a steady eye”, Fiona Hall opens out visually ‘events of light and night’. In large Polaroid photographs she found between Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso (to which she dedicates respectively four panels). The Gates of Hell and the River of Light are complementary, opening and closing what could be called a “polyptych” of twelve panels. They represent the ultimate contemplation in the human voyage.

The glare of dry fire in the first image and the glittering of the waters of ecstasy in the last, recall the golden background in Cimabue’s Tuscan icons which inspired Dante. It is actually difficult to render so luminous an intensity, but Fiona Hall has chosen an effective, if modest material: sardine cans. Beside their brilliance as humble objects they convey in their familiar and derisive contours how unique is the stuff of a simple life. Here is to be found a commodity of our contemporary humdrum, but it also echoes the gestures of ordinary moments - when someone walks or stumbles, carries a heavy weight, or beckons with the hand, or hesitates about which way to turn. There are the particulars of Dante’s Comedy, of our lives too. Encounters with people are never abstract in Dante’s work, conversely he is able to make what is abstract become corporeal. This is what Fiona Hall achieves visually: it results from the presence in her images of industrial materials which designate the Australian environment: burnt corrugated iron making up Hell’s gate, bringing elements of the Australian way of life into the picture - and into the mind words like “cheap”, “tough” and “bloody hot”. These large polaroids have been made with a minimal depth of field. Fiona Hall turned this into an asset by constructing a space with planes of different textures - painted or metallic surfaces acting as an intermediary framework - which reveal an overwhelming perspective, or a bottomless proximity. 

In the distance, the ultimate meanings are disclosed. One contemplates the absence or the presence of Beauty, as far as once can see, since in Western culture to know is to see. The body is in harmony with or painfully related to space , being read "literally as well as allegorically" - as can the entire Divine Comedy, according to its author. Space prolongs, describes the axes of body and soul: ascent, fall and the span of the horizon. Fiona Hall portrays its vastness, for he has acquired the mastery of her technique - it is clear also that Sandro Botticelli and William Blake are not mere references for her. Ascent, fall and traversing the whole of space in front of oneself are indeed the three impulses shaping the human drama. And we understand, when Dante begins the poem by recounting to us his arduous progression up a sloping hill, in his search for a way out of the dense forest where he finds himself at the mid-point of his life - nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita - that we are, like he, also in the middle-ages of uncertainty, that our world is altered.

And here comes the other perception: an unbearable proximity, which virtually sticks to us - scenes of horror, succeeding one another with unbelievable variations, down to the last circle. There is no respite as it is an endless spiral. Following Dante, Fiona Hall renders the expressivity of the Inferno. Its contemporary echoes don't even need to be raised as they resound in our memory and round about our lives. The only way, maybe, to give an account of violence and suffering is to show, as Fiona Hall does, how perceptions are altered, and hence to give the form of one's emotion. Thus, we are in turn affected as we look at the pictures: the lightly or heavily sliding souls, brought down to the anonymity of indefinite pain, a replica of the pain of many others; or the imploring postures with which one cannot help identifying in one way or another. Yes, "this is not a happy Beyond" 2 as says Italo Calvino who also inspired Fiona Hall for this work.

— Brigitte Carcenac de Torné

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