The Age | In a world of wonder, Piccinini asks us to value more than beauty

Newly dusted off, the deserted ballroom above Flinders Street Station is an arresting and quietly emotive space to encounter Patricia Piccinini’s hyper-real creatures. Accessible to the public after 25 years of closure, the venue is wondrous – as is the art. And wonder, which shouldn’t be mistaken for escapism, is something we need right now.

One of the few events continuing as part of RISING, a new winter arts festival that was largely cancelled due to the recent COVID-19 lockdown, Piccinini’s A Miracle Constantly Repeated is a carefully crafted world of creatures, sculpture, installation, video and sound. It poses questions central to Piccinini’s work. The artist cultivates harmonious relations between nature and technology, explores how we often mistakenly align what’s conventionally beautiful with what’s valuable, and demonstrates how positions of power can be tempered by care.

As one of Australia’s foremost artists, Piccinini has for three decades been asking these questions through human and chimera sculptures, alongside public works such as the Skywhale hot air balloon.

This show is almost a miniature version of the artist’s momentous survey at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2018. Yet Piccinini’s life forms appear more intimate in the Flinders Street Station rooms, sitting among the paint-peeled walls and the ageing French Renaissance style architecture. Piccinini seems to ask: if a space is left to its own devices, what new life forms might emerge?

Each of the multiple rooms is its own world: an abandoned office, life under the sea, a young man’s bedroom, an interspecies nightclub. After first encountering the views of Melbourne offered by the space, one is quickly submerged into a rainforest of small hybrid creatures, before moving to a larger room featuring recent works such as a sapling creature held lovingly on a man’s shoulders, and brightly coloured silicone stilettos that morph into plants. Then there is a sculpture stopping almost everyone: two young people holding a washing basket with an injured koala inside.

Distinctly Australian, it feels reminiscent of the recent bushfires. But it’s also a scene common across Piccinini’s work: creatures are placed in an intimate relationship, often compassionate. The scenes convey how the ability to love, or to at least care, is often mistaken as being innate and uncontrollable; what if we thought of care as a moral choice, a responsibility.

Next is a video of a young female returning a lost creature to its home, and walking different landscapes from the realist streets to a mesmerising dreamscape reminiscent of a flattened moon. From here we find a couple embraced in the bed of a man’s room, before moving into a glowing, glorious field of white tendril-like plants growing from the floor and ceiling.

The show’s final room sees science and art meet the party: the ballroom is transformed into a club with neon lights, danceable music, shiny surfaces, and an array of creatures. On a balcony overlooking this scene of play is a famous sculpture that’s rendered in Piccinini’s likeness where she’s cradling a small creature. It feels like the creator – the artist – is watching their creations. It errs on the side of sentimental.

These are all scenes of intimate reciprocity, of beings living between nature and technology. Yet what makes it potent is the stressful realisation this often isn’t how life works; that humans forget to care and commit terrible things with their power. Piccinini’s art isn’t didactic, but it is morally driven: empathy for others isn’t necessarily a natural state, but something to be cultivated.

If art can imagine new futures, this exhibition fulfils this quota. And yet the success of Piccinini’s imagination has seen her taken less seriously than some of her counterparts. This may be tall poppy syndrome, or that her art is highly emotive and incredibly accessible — and accessibility and popularity are often mistaken for a lack of intelligence.

Yet Piccinini is also a female artist deliberating on what are typically seen as feminine topics of emotion, care, paternalism and empathy—but these are words that every person should consider. In the Flinders Street Ballroom one can simultaneously look at both Piccinini’s world and the streets of Melbourne, and in the unconscious space that art evokes, Piccinini offers a moment to contemplate the ethics of empathy not just on emotional levels but politically and imaginatively.

Originally published in The Age, 22 June 2021. Read here.

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