Patricia Piccinini and Flinders Street Station
This is neither the artist nor the locale.
This is a Fraisier cake (think French think strawberries) with Diplomat cream and marzipan icing. Phwooaaar. Regardless of how it tastes (one down from sublime, needs cream to push it over the top), it looks wonderful with those rugged little adventures of custard and the carefully piped (home made) chocolate hearts. It was made for a special occasion, the first time the six friends in one of the photos on the wall had seen each other and eaten together — normally a regular event — in seven months.
It never made it. There was a domestic outbreak of Covid which precluded mingling.
How often has that happened in the last two years. You think you might be on the brink of some sort of return, a recovery, when the phone pings and there’s news of a new outbreak and a return to rules which have become both familiar and irksome in a passive sort of way. Just a tired sigh. The brief frisson of the panic buying of toilet rolls or people whizzing up cheerful little memes to brighten the pandemic day … that’s all long gone. So very 2020.
We’ve been locked down for 262 of the 531 days from March 14 2020 to the latest lifting of restrictions, 49 percent of the time, which included two long grey winters.
But if the Fraisier cake didn’t reach its intended mouths, there was a workaround and it was consumed anyway and with considerable enthusiasm. That’s also a story of the pandemic. Managing. Amid a particular sort of peace. Cleaner air, less traffic, less socialising, a lot less socialising, finding a nest and burrowing into it, deeper and deeper as time goes by. My Big Issue seller, just back in business, tells me he enjoyed the lockdowns and wishes there were more of them. Quiet. Not taxing.
But one thing, a bad thing, a taxing thing, that had happened was that art of all sorts had been swallowed into one of the pandemic’s all consuming sloughs. No concerts, no soirees, no shows, no galleries. It was a reminder of how public the experience of art must always be.
In mid-2021 the RISING Festival, already postponed once, was designed to bring all this back with a rush, a huge rush, the sort Melbourne has always been able to supply so capably: 183 art, performance, music and food events, featuring over 850 local artists; 36 significant new works commissioned especially for the festival were to be unveiled, many of them to be on a massive scale.
It opened on May 26; 180,000 tickets had been sold to the various events. When it closed due to lockdown on May 28, not many of those tickets had been used. A catastrophe for those closely involved, and a bitter disappointment for many members of the potential audiences.
One of the party pieces of RISING was going to be Patricia Piccinini’s huge exhibition, ‘A Miracle Constantly Repeated’, exciting not least because of its location, the top floor of Flinders Street Station, somewhere most Melbournians have never been.
What is up there? An expansive eyrie? A ghost house? Who has even looked up from the hat shop, the hip hoppers and the homeless on that particular stretch of Flinders Street? But look at it. It could be a palace. Australia’s oldest railway station and once the busiest in the world. You may have sat on the steps ‘under the clocks’ waiting for a friend, but did you know they are heated so they’ll stay dry?
The Victorian Heritage database says: ‘The architectural style of the building is unique in Victoria, broadly Edwardian Free Style strongly influenced by French public architecture of the 1900s. The symmetrical composition of the main sections, the use of giant order, heavily rusticated piers, squat domes, broad arches and the figures in relief over the arches of the original design [which never eventuated] display this influence.
‘The design as executed, with an extra floor added, also includes elements found in architecture in Melbourne at the time, especially the use of red brick contrasted with coloured cement render and the grouping of windows vertically under tall arches.
‘While the building was originally welcomed as an ornament to the city, the influence of modern architectural opinions in the post WWII period saw the building derided as eclectic, ugly and tasteless, a view which still persists in some quarters.‘ A story also circulated that the post had confused the proposals and that this design was actually meant for the central station in Mumbai (Bombay).
James Fawcett and H P Ashworth were the designers. During the course of construction the Public Works Department modified their plans significantly. (You might anticipate that. See, eg, the Sydney Opera House.) Fawcett was a designer for Wunderlich as well as an architect and the acres of pressed tin in this building as well as thousands of others are according to his patterns.
For most of the building’s life the top floor was mainly used by the Victorian Railways Institute. The Victorian Railways Institute: ‘designed to encourage a corporate culture to counteract trade union influence by providing educational, social and recreational facilities for railway employees’. A curate’s egg of a very good idea. Its headquarters at the station included a concert hall, a 400-yard running track round the roof and a lecture hall at the Elizabeth Street end, which was converted to a Ballroom around 1930. Many of these facilities were available for hire by outside groups and by the ’50s the top floor of the station was home to 120 cultural, social and sporting organisations: cat lovers, rose devotees, debaters, poetry afficionados … the works. This function continued until the Institute moved out in 1984. The last ball was held in the ballroom in May 1985.
The railways were privatised in the 1990s, and the rail operators, Connex then Metro, took little interest in maintaining the station. But the condition of such a distinctive feature of the city could hardly be ignored. In 2012 the Liberal government held a competition for its refurbishment. Hassell and Herzog & de Meuron won the million dollar prize, but their plan would have cost $2billion to realise, something the judges probably should have taken into consideration.
Coming to power in 2015, the new Labor government provided a grant of $100 million for ‘urgent works to repair the station’s crumbling exterior and clock tower, and to fix the leaky roof.’ Nothing comes cheap at this scale. All the money was spent.
This is part of the third floor corridor reached by climbing 90 steps unless you are desperate to go up in one of the two lifts. This corridor on the south side from which all the rooms exit was exactly 300 of my steps from one end to the other, so round 250 metres. A physical experience of perspective. But that’s not what you are noticing is it?
You’re thinking, good gracious, look at that. What do you actually get for $100m?
* * * * * *
On the allotted day, we work our way through the fast food bohemia which is the bottom end of Elizabeth Street, home to the indigent and the edgy, always restless with a particular sort of energy, through the shuttered shops and signs of urban struggle. More than the ‘i’s have been taken out of Mag Nation. It’s all gone, the whole of it; and the Lord of the Fries must be surveying his domain elsewhere too.
The conscientious young people at the very modest entrance check our double-vaxxed status, our masks and our digital tickets because, despite all, Patricia Piccinini, ‘A Miracle Constantly Repeated’, was on. Where it was supposed be on. In the top floor of Flinders Street Station.
This is ‘The Carrier’, a highlight of Piccinini’s 2013 hit exhibition in New York.
It has some of the characteristics of her work more generally. One is the extraordinary degree of technical accomplishment (for which she is not solely responsible. In the notes to this show Piccinini acknowledges a vast team of helpers involved in the brilliant fabrication, including a nails and manicure salon.) It is also usually perplexing. Members of the American audience wondered whether or not both of these figures were hybrids, … and why both weren’t clothed? So, yes, fleshy as well. Often. Hyper-realism applied to unreal figures. So surrealism? I suppose so, in the strictest sense. And er … a bit repellent. Ron Mueck also does hyper-real figures in silicone and I find his work more easily assimilable.
So beyond a day out and the chance to have a look at the upper regions of the station my expectations were not off the scale. But then I have forgotten to say that her work is also amazingly inventive: the busiest of brains hard at work and willing to give you a look at what’s inside. So not to be too lightly dismissed.
This is how Patricia introduces her show:
If you asked me to sum up my practice in one word, that word would be ‘relationships’. You will see relationships everywhere in my work, between people and animals, and things and the world, between the artificial and the natural.
I started thinking about this exhibition in early 2020. First there were the bushfires, and then there was COVID. I mean, it was scary. But I didn’t want to just make work that reproduced that fear. Because I know how I react when I’m confronted by the scariness: I just freeze. I don’t want to freeze people. I would like there to be room for action, and for hope.
So, I wanted to make a show that acknowledges the challenges we face, but also celebrates resilience: our resilience as people, but also nature’s resilience.
I wanted to think about life itself, and marvel at the sheer unstoppable vitality of the living world around us.’
I thought, yes, that is entirely possible, and perhaps that might be something that we should be exploring more generally. Might be something there worth an additional allocation of sympathy and patience. She’s talking, at the very least, about recovery.
But the setting was speaking to me loudly as well. I looked again at this noble wreck of a building and wondered if we might need to recast the idea of ‘sheer unstoppable vitality’.
Out the grimy windows of the south side was the machinery of daily life and the polished and affectless towers of Southbank. Out the other, highly decorated remnants of grand times in history and commerce.
‘Built 1872’, ‘Rebuilt 1891’ say the large texts on the facade. Once was not enough. Either side of the golden age of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. If not Victoria sitting enthroned on the apex of the pediment, it will be Britannia. The references are from another time. However, without any idea of what goes on in those top four and half floors — it could be anything — prima facie that building seemed like a sound and going concern.
This patch of Flinders Street is currently defined by the decorative signage of major construction works, although you can only assume that something is going on. Most of the work is underground and the rest is hidden under mass canopies. This is the future taken on faith. Tell me again Dan, when are we going to see something for all this disruption? The whole city sometimes seems like a COVID-ridden worksite, too well-tuned to the undercurrents of aggravation. Need to get a move on pal. The signage, the slow motion of white helmets high-viz jackets yellow boots, the ‘Stop’ and ‘Slow’ lollipops, were making art by themselves. Frozen, they made a big Jeffrey Smart; live, something more like a film set.
It was the same inside: tableaux wherever you looked, intended and unintended.
I started the actual exhibition here and thought, ah gosh: bloke with fleshy thing on his shoulders. Is this going to be a bit of a challenge? But I went to the notes.
… I had heard of the idea of giving personhood to plants to help save our forests, especially our old growth forests …
This led me to think about a work that might imagine a relationship between a person and a plant. But a plant represented with the sort of agency and sentience that allows us to see its connection to us, rather than its difference. I wanted to see the person as a nurturer of the plants rather than just seeing trees and plants as resources to be exploited for our benefit. I wanted to show the life in the plant creature. To me, even though there is an element of strangeness that comes from rendering them as this fleshy hybrid, there is also a sense of its sentience and vitality.
I could see what she was getting at, and it seemed less gross. Nearby were the two girls with a koala in a washing basket, the type of newspaper image which had become familiar during the recent bushfires. It’s not without its complexity: great that you’re doing it; terrible that you have to. I can’t look at it without thinking of our leader who doesn’t hold a hose no matter the type or location of the conflagration. That might make it effective art. It is impossible not to admire the luminous skill of the craft.
Nearby these folk were waiting to watch a video.
How has this combination of animal and human been constructed? Are they humans with tails and a canine nose and mouth? I think probably yes, and I also think that that is not supposed to be where you focus your attention. Patricia suggests we think about now extinct thylacines, Tasmanian Tigers, and the possibility of recreating them from extant genetic material.
One thing I can say is that I love the wonderful, strange diversity of nature. That’s the thing about my work. I’m not here to tell you what we should or shouldn’t do. What I want to do is give you the space to think about it yourself.
‘Space’? Maybe incentive, or motivation.
She points to this painting from the the Bendigo Art Gallery collection, classic Victorian art as social commentary, as one stimulus for ‘While she sleeps’. I’ll use that as an excuse to include it here.
Is it more digestible than the humanoid thylacines? I’m going to say a qualified yes, but why? I think it might be the gent’s hair … But moving right along.
The ‘Cleaner’, a ‘kind of animal/machine chimera – a cross between a leatherback turtle and a vacuum cleaner.’ This is one of the broader tactics of the show: to link fleshy silicon with hard-edged fibre glass, complex organic coloration with solid block primaries. It is helpful perhaps to know that the existence of leatherback turtles is threatened by their propensity to clean up the bags and other pieces of plastic that infest the ocean thinking that they are jellyfish.
This might accord with another very clever thing at work here and elsewhere in the exhibition which is to pitch the focus and the cast (ever so slightly wide) of the eyes so that they look through and beyond you, wistful, into another world.
Meanwhile, out of doors, Tasmania was inviting us to ‘come down for air’. A tease. At the time you couldn’t cross the border. A suitable solecism.
Three art works.
I may have been warming to what she was up to, but I thought this was marvellous. There is the complete surprise of the posture which is nonetheless plausible; the matter being supported doesn’t drip; and the furry creatures appearing here as in many other parts of the show are a comfort. It also seems to work constructively with the lively patterns and colours of disrepair in this room. From the doorway it provides a striking silhouette against its windows.
There was much more including ‘The Couple’, a slightly monstrous couple in bed perhaps post-coitally, a parable apparently of the evils of rejection of difference. In the next room is ‘The Awakening’, a video with pulsing silicon precisely mimicking flesh working to produce something. An egg? A human egg? Hard to take your eyes off it.
Above left is an image from Piccinini’s video. On the right is a photo of the secretion of a human egg, the first she believes ever taken and sent to her by a friend AFTER she had made the video. She associates this work with joy and delight.
I began to wonder if the media she had chosen for communicating her ideas — warmth, positivity, sympathy, concern, delight in life and living — might just be too individual, too couched in a highly personal interior language, to enable them to be easily shared? Just wondering.
Which didn’t make the pieces any less interesting as art. Here in ‘Celestial Field’ we have hundreds of organic forms, the ones emerging from the floor modelled broadly on ovaries coming down into a uterus, the ones from the roof like broached cocoons, and in the middle two motor scooters, ‘The Balance’, in an embrace. I liked this room too. The forest of white shapes seemed to work. They controlled and ordered the space in a way that I think was intended elsewhere but hadn’t come off.
For a start I thought, in keeping with the other resonances in the room, the two motor scooters were engaged in a sexual encounter. But I looked again, several times, and decided it might be more to do establishing positions of domination and submission with overtones of aggression. Piccinini says that ‘The Balance’ is about ‘the naturalisation of technology. These are machines imagined as animals, locked in an ambiguous clinch.’ Yes they are, and in so very accomplished a manner.
Which left the Ballroom.
Finally, some clear signs of the expenditure of $100m. A lot of that exposed strutting in the roof is new. But for some reason no inner cladding. An external door led off to the left straight into thin air. There may have been a, let’s say, smoking balcony there once but there isn’t any more. There are two annexes.
I know these annexes. There would be an urn for the cups of tea (no coffee until 1974, then instant). The cups would be set out on a long tables, perhaps a trestle table, for the big jug of milk and the sandwiches and cakes. Men are unlikely to have been welcome: they wouldn’t know what to do and they would just get in the way. In my version of this annexe there would be kids darting round looking for their mum or trying to pinch a bit of cake before the appropriate time. And it would be called without even thinking about it ‘The Annexe’.
The roofing here and in the near identical one next door is visible, moulded corrugated iron, one skin thick. Nothing. You could make it move by breathing out too emphatically. What was that $100m spent on?
You will notice the decorative tape above the sink. That is historical apparently. The attendants told us that under no circumstances were they to use tape, even Blutack, to stick any notices on the walls. Heritage. So. Heritage. You don’t fix these things up properly, you leave them for (pause … a flourish of trumpets off) HERITAGE. I know about Heritage. It has its good and bad aspects.
But let’s duck back into The Ballroom. On entry La Brava, a diva with engorged canines melded with a running shoe. (Nails by Super Rad Nail Sisters of Fitzroy.)
‘… confidence, pride and beauty. She even has her own light because she is the star. … I think this is a very contemporary way of thinking about the world, to imagine bodies that are not all organic, but exist in between the organic and the artificial. La Brava evades that dichotomy of human and animal and other stuff because she is all of them, and she is revelling in it. I love her!!’
With roots in Tina Turner, and Dame Joan … mmmm, well oui et non.
The main feature in The Ballroom is tree as mirror ball, ‘The Mothertree’.
And in its branches one will find an inadvertent self-portrait among the tangle of ideas.
Up on the band platform is a woman with a creature in a maternal embrace.
Her role might be to show how the space might be both filled and observed. One of the roles of the photo is to show the new metal bracing in the roof and the way the hard plaster has cascaded off the naked brickwork. I am standing on RoggeWood Formwork Plywood which is made in China. That covers most of the floor and adds its own dimension to the cultural story.
Out in the street the trams are also sending messages. ‘You have THE WILL. We have THE WAY’ sounds like something from another more chirpy time. The billboard is working the same vein. ‘The future belongs to the ready’ who appear to be educated at Deakin University and live near the sea. Perhaps in a beach house but not too close to the shoreline.
It had been a significant outing. We had been out, a good start; and we had been out to something … which was even better. And it was art, and interesting art, challenging to some degree and very encouraging in intent if not always in execution. And we had seen the interior of the top floor of the station. More to be done there guys, unless it’s to become a giant series of art studios. That would be a good result wouldn’t it. Suitable. Appropriate.
I started writing this weeks ago. Christmas et al had not intervened. After that excursion I had been left with the sense that things were coming good, that people were out again — such an important thing for a happy city — and that this would be exactly the right place to finish somewhere on Elwood beach near the beginning of the mini-planets.
But then other things happened. I remain positive but not, at this stage, to OMICRON.