One of the busiest buildings in Melbourne is also one of the most neglected. The ballroom and the adjacent upstairs spaces of Flinders Street Station have near-mythical status. It’s the perfect environment for the uncanny, uncomfortable, but very human work of artist Patricia Piccinini. Her new show, A Miracle Constantly Repeated, appearing at Rising, layers new work on old, reimagining the space within the parameters of Piccinini’s world. It’s not always pretty, but it is always beautiful.
Your work is always about creating another world somewhere close to our own. How would you describe the experience of visiting this show?
It’s both familiar and strange, comfortable and weird. People who are new to my work often experience it as a journey for discomfort to acceptance. There is a lot of weirdness but also a lot of warmth.
It’s almost a collaboration with the building itself, which has this wonderful sense of being out of time somehow. There is this sense of faded glory and history, but also this sense of that amazing space that is hiding in plain sight – like the unknown, interior world of someone you see every day on the train.
How did you come to use this space?
I think I had heard stories about the Flinders Street Station Ballroom, but it was really just this vague rumour to me. It was Hannah and Gideon from Rising who brought the idea of using the space to me. It was intriguing, because I’m always very interested in inhabiting non-traditional space with my work. It’s just so fantastic that people will be able to get access to the space again, and because of its location we will be able to have it open day and at night. There is this real atmosphere there at night, and that really transforms your experience of the work.
The title of the show, A Miracle Constantly Repeated, is a quote from theologist Lyman Abbott. What about Abbott, or about that line, inspired you to pick it?
When Abbott wrote “a miracle constantly repeated becomes a process of nature”, he was looking for a way to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the objective truth of evolution. I like that compromise. It’s like the way that we are starting to see the failings of the colonial worldview that disparaged Indigenous understandings of the land as ‘unscientific’. It is clear that the insights of traditional custodians complement and extend contemporary science. There is more than one way to see the world.
Originally, the phrase referred to evolution, but I think it’s just a wonderful way to think about life. Nature, the world, our whole lives, are this amazing, paradoxical juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the everyday.
Your work has been described as grotesque, but it’s always deeply human, intimate and optimistic. This show draws on some of the more traumatic events of the last year or so. How do you find optimism in all this chaos?
I’m interested in creating stories of “speculative optimism”, fables depicting the world as it should be, so that we can use that energy to move in the right direction.
There is a work in the show drawn from stories and images of people who risked their own life to help injured wildlife in the 2020 bushfires. The work shows two girls holding a washing basket with an injured koala in it. It’s one of the few completely naturalistic works I’ve ever done, with everything coming directly from real life. It has a real bitter sweetness of a such moment, when we recognise the damage that the koala has suffered due to human-driven climate change, alongside the beautiful possibility that human individuals do have the power to do something, if they choose.
This also ties into the theme of resilience, which is something I have been thinking about a lot. Not just human resilience, which after last year seems vitally important, but natural resilience. When lockdown finished, we went out into the Victorian landscape to shoot footage for a new work that will premiere as part of this exhibition. The work follows a young woman as she walks through a series of landscapes – burnt-out forests, industrialised urban fringe grass lands, desert, a salt lake, beautiful bushland. She is carrying a small, motionless creature in her arms, some sort of hybrid marsupial that is both unfamiliar but recognisable.
The woman is alone, except for the creature, and while she forms this intimate bond, she ultimately realises that she need to allow the creature to join its own kind. There is this juxtaposition of wonder and sadness, and questions of what care really is, alongside these landscapes which, while blackened, still teem with life. There is a warning in that, but also hope.