soap, type C photograph, found objects
H 72 W 70 D 29cm
Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds donated by Michael Darling, 1997
Fiona Hall studied painting and came to prominence as a photographer, but has extended into media including sculpture, installation, moving image and garden design. Her work is characterised by its use of ordinary objects and materials, which are transformed into complex and allusive artworks. Give a dog a bone is a large-scale installation which has been described as Hall’s “Portrait of Civilisation” (1) and her “denunciation of consumer culture at its sharpest” (2).
The title of the installation, Give a dog a bone, comes from an old English folk song that concludes ‘This old man comes rolling home’. The centrepiece of the work is the larger-than-life-size photograph of the artist’s father wrapped in a cloak knitted from soft drink cans bearing that globally recognisable symbol of consumption, Coca-Cola. The man has been compared to a “tribal elder of industrial society” (3) yet he appears naked and vulnerable beneath the harsh material, and his expression is humble and sensitive rather than triumphant. In recent installations the artist has displayed the photographic component as a dramatic stand-alone piece entitled The social fabric.
The title Give a dog a bone evokes connotations of ‘a dog’s life’ and the installation displays the detritus of our late twentieth-century urbanised lives as a multitude of objects, carved laboriously from soap and laid out on stacked, used, cardboard boxes. At the core of Hall’s work is the intersection of nature and culture and in this installation the vagaries of fashion and industrial design reverberate against the nuances of the natural forms. The objects include a variety of manufactured and domestic items, as well as a sculpture of Buddha, bones, seed pods of Australian native plants, and a multitude of ‘turds’. This diverse and diverting array of forms are equalised or neutralised as consumables by the bland yellow material and loose geometric shelving. The items are thus preserved in soap, “one of capitalism’s earliest and most profitable products” (4) but also a most unstable medium that parallels the obsolescence of the everyday objects, and the brevity of life.
This work has been shown in various configurations. In early versions the photograph was displayed surrounded by the objects and boxes within a cave-like space, and later within a pyramid shape evoking a shrine or tomb. In recent displays the pyramid arrangement of boxed objects, separated from the photograph, has appeared rather as an ironic temple to the pervasive experience of consumption, with a shopping bag again woven from Coca-Cola cans, conveniently placed adjacent to the merchandise.
(1) Timothy Morrell, ‘Fiona Hall’, The Second Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1996, p 114
(2) Julie Ewington, Fiona Hall, Piper Press, 2005, p 138
(3) Timothy Morrell, p 114
(4) Julie Ewington, pp 138, 151
Give a dog a bone was originally installed in a shipping container in the exhibition Container 96: Art Across Oceans in Copenhagen, 1996. Artists from around the globe were invited to present a work that reflected upon their culture and global perspective. In this work a container was set up much like a ‘hobo’s cave’ containing the flotsam and jetsam of our contemporary urban lives mixed with seed pods from native plant species which placed the installation within an Australian context.
In this work a container was set up much like a ‘hobo’s cave’ containing the flotsam and jetsam of our contemporary urban lives mixed with seed pods from native plant species which placed the installation within an Australian context.
Fiona Hall, 2008