Patricia Piccinini’s studio is in an old industrial pocket of Melbourne’s Collingwood, behind a heavy, unmarked door. She’s not in when I arrive. Her husband, Peter Hennessy, comes to the door wearing a gas mask (he’s working in the fabricating room) and leads me into a light-filled warehouse space.
He leaves me to wait in an office, where there’s a carefully filed art library (arranged by year), and a wall plastered in photos of Piccinini’s creations: babies and animals both human and animal (and hybrids of the two), imagined evolutionary curios, and skywhales. When Piccinini arrives, I’m making myself familiar with the plans for her new show that someone’s handily left on the coffee table.
For the inaugural Rising festival, Piccinini is taking over the fabled ballroom concealed somewhere upstairs at Flinders Street Station and shuttered for decades. Piccinini’s show, in a way, is a collaboration with the building as it gives us access to a space hidden right under our noses, in one of the city’s busiest hubs. “And now it’s going to be magical,” says Piccinini. “Not only will we see this space, but we’ll see it in this extraordinary way.”
A Miracle Constantly Repeated, her first extensive hometown show in almost two decades, takes its name from the work of theologian Lyman Abbott, who wrote that “a miracle constantly repeated becomes a process of nature”. Piccinini believes it’s a wonderful way to think about life and, with her hyperreal silicone creations, light, sound and video pieces, she’ll dig deeper into the themes of nature, connection and care – ideas the Australian artist has been investigating for decades.
While her uncanny sculptures may look real, they’re not directly comparable to anything in nature. Full of intimacy and often playfulness, they straddle both the artificial and the natural, conjuring an alternate reality that can leave audiences feeling uneasy or even repulsed. For Piccinini, it’s all about bringing people from that initial shock to a place of acceptance and understanding.
None of the exhibition pieces are quite finished when I visit the studio, so I’m met with a menagerie of half-realised visions: gender-fluid nudes, furry mammalian cubs of indeterminate species, and an anthropomorphised cat with tyre-tread flesh (“She’s the lovechild of Tina Turner and Dame Joan Sutherland,” says Piccinini). Drawers are overflowing with hair, both human and animal (I spot kangaroo, cow and otter), and a tray of half-finished eyes stares out at me. A koala nestles beneath a blanket in a washing basket, and a bat with an almost-human face hangs from a pole by finger-like feet, so realistic it could just be sleeping.
“The purpose of my work is to have a bit of a push-away effect,” she says. “It’s unknown – a bit icky – but the empathetic response brings us in. There’s a move towards something you might not have been interested in. We don’t have a word to express that.”
Up to eight people work on a Piccinini piece over many months – from her ideas and sketches to 3D modelling and moulding, to hair-punching and dressing. It’s a precise and involved process; the artist doesn’t do things by halves.
A conversation with her is intimate and often intense. She speaks deliberately and carefully, veering from bushfires to breastfeeding to communication between plants – topics that may feel unrelated but are all part of a bigger picture. She’s eager to talk through the themes and images underpinning her new show, which is the latest salvo in a decades-long discussion covering mushrooms, motherhood, our relationship to other species and how we define them, the more-than-human world around us, and how we engage with it – or fail to do so.
“You know those peregrine falcons in the city?” she asks, referring to the chicks whose incubation and early life on the ledge of a Collins Street skyscraper was captured last year in a live-stream. “I’ve watched them grow from fluff balls to creatures with feathers, to sleek, incredible animals and take their first flight – not from a tree, like you’d imagine, but from a high-rise building – immediately, instinctively. It was awe-inspiring,” she says.
“We have a millennial philosophy that helps us separate ourselves from nature,” she says. “But this is an example in our own city where, actually, we can concretely see that in fact we’re all meshed together, and we do coexist. It’s miraculous. We really are connected, and we need to be. This is something, this duality, that we need to reassess.”
Piccinini has been working in her Collingwood studio for 15 years. She remembers the year because she moved in while she was pregnant with her son, who is now helping with the Flinders Street project. Motherhood plays a huge part in her work. “I’m a mother,” she says, “I’ve had another body grow inside of me. I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to nurture another body. I understand that my body is permeable. Stuff comes in, stuff comes out. It’s also an undervalued relationship.
“A lot of people will look at this and be slightly perturbed,” she says, walking me to a sculpture of an obese dolphin-human hybrid cradling a child. “But this is a nurturing relationship, and that’s what we want from nature. That’s a loaded idea. Is that actually nature’s responsibility?”
Piccinini, who regularly depicts children in her work, says they’re completely comfortable with these hybrid creatures because they haven’t yet learned to be suspicious of the unfamiliar. “Children connect and empathise in a way we don’t. Because we don’t want to see ourselves as uncivilised, or animal, we don’t recognise the intrinsic value. Children don’t have that yet.”
She takes me to a work-in-progress sculpture, The Supporter. A teenager twists into a physically impossible yoga-like pose, feet in the air, holding aloft a wrinkled, featureless creature that’s little more than a mass of flesh. Piccinini moves a few furry, mogwai-like babies and perches them on its back. This is their home, and she is their mother. They live not just alongside but in tandem with the human that supports them.
Piccinini built this teenage figure from various sources, making them as gender-fluid as possible with shaped brows, a strong jaw, a soft moustache and dark lashes. (Gender is another border that’s being dismantled, and Piccinini is celebrating that). But she usually uses real people for inspiration, from herself to friends and her own children. “Everybody I know has shown up in quite a few works,” she says.
It’s not just animal life that interests her; the new show is teeming with sculptures of mushrooms. Piccinini has developed a fascination with fungi. “They’re a symbol of fecundity, of potential for new life,” she says.
She talks about mycelium – the vegetative or root system of fungi that lies underground, reproducing and gathering nutrients. “[That’s] reproduction without sexuality,” says Piccinini. “That idea that life lives is intrinsically hopeful. It’s a type of organism that we can’t define.”
If Covid has shown us anything, she believes, it’s that we aren’t always in control, and that we rely on the natural world – not the other way around. “We have to be humble, because we’re part of the equation, but not at the top. We’re on par with everything else. We need to be more searching, more vulnerable.”
We are, after all, part of the same organism, joined just beneath the surface.
Patricia Piccinini’s A Miracle Constantly Repeated is part of Rising. It opens May 26 and runs until August 31.