Boundaries of the unconscious

A talk with Patricia Piccinini.

Your work is very related to relationships between humans and other animals and the environment. Where and how did you begin?

My work has always been about these arbitrary – but dubious – boundaries that humans create to define and control the world. My early work looked very specifically into the relationship between the artificial and the natural in terms of medicine and science. It is not far from these two terms – which seem so obvious on the surface but turn out to be much more intertwined on closer inspection – to an examination of the relationship between people and the world. Also, I’ve always been interested in making work about the world around me, rather than the art world. In that sense my work is more social than formal, and from my perspective the relationship between people and other animals and the environment are central to the big issues of my world. Our response to things like climate change and the pandemic very much reflect general society’s understanding of people as essentially separate from nature. Looking at these relationships is very much my way of tackling the big issues without getting too didactic or distant from emotional experience.

What literature, movies or historical events do you feel inspired by?

My work very much comes from things I read and see and hear. I am always looking around for stories and ideas to work with. If I had to come up with one key text it would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For me, Frankenstein is a story about bad parenting. Dr Victor Frankenstein creates a new being, but is horrified by the fact that it doesn’t look like him. He rejects his creation, refuses to love or care for it, refuses even to create a companion for it and thus condemns ‘the monster’ to a life of loneliness and segregation. While Dr Frankenstein’s ‘hubris’ is often cited as the tragedy of the novel, I see his abrogation of parental responsibility as the real cause for the violence that ensues. If we are going to create new life, do we not have responsibilities towards that which we create? This seems to me to be Shelley’s question, both as a creator in a time of scientific upheaval and as a mother, because Shelley was both. She was also a committed abolitionist who boycotted sugar due to its slave plantation origins. The genius of her story is that it is all these things and also a great science fiction plot.

How do you feel about the current apocalyptic situation? Would you refer it to your work?

I’m certainly very conscious of it, and the work that I am making now directly refers to it. In fact, I can’t imagine how I could make work that doesn’t talk about it. It seems so vital and so pressing. However, I don’t think there is much value in just making work about how terrible things are. It’s too easy.

Also, I think we all know it, or if we choose to ignore it, that decision is hard to shift. Just thinking about how apocalyptic the situation is right now is actually quite petrifying – in the sense that it turns us to stone, and it actually makes it harder to act because we feel so powerless. So a lot of what I’m thinking about now is how do I make work that is hopeful and invigorating without being naively optimistic or ignoring our reality. How can I make work that acknowledges the reality of the anthropocene but also inspires people to imagine a positive future that we might be able to work towards. I have children, and I have to believe that we can create a future despite the many horrible old men who seem bent on destroying it. We cannot go back to a pre-industrial age, so how can we create a future along with other animals and the nature that we have that is good for us and for the rest of the planet. Nature has always changed and evolved, but now we have a more of a part in that change, so how can art empower people to push that change in the right direction. It’s a huge question, but one I feel I have to try to address. I guess it’s my dream at the moment.

Personally I often think about dreams looking at your sculptures.

That makes a lot of sense. Even though I spend a lot of time thinking about my work and the ideas and stories that inform it, a lot of it comes from a more unconscious place. I don’t often use my own specific dreams, but a lot of the forms and even the ideas come from a process of drawing which is very un controlled. I find myself drawn to certain shapes and relationships, and these have become a sort of vocabulary in the studio. There is also the verisimilitude in the work. The use of realistic sculptural techniques combined with the imagery that does not actually belong in the world has a very dreamlike effect. This is like the way a dream seems very real when you are in it, but is actually completely fantastical when you think back on it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working towards a major site-specific exhibition in the Flinders Street Railway station in Melbourne as part of the new rising Festival. It revolves around taking over these spaces that have been closed up since the 1980s and occupying them with a series of new works and installations. The spaces themselves are amazing; there is a ballroom and old gym that date back to the 1920s. The show addresses the sort of issues that have long concerned me, but skewed a bit by the experience of the pandemic and lockdown, with a focus on both resilience and connection, and how we might image a way out of our current situation. I’m very interested in what I call ‘speculative optimism’, which is about inventing narratives of hope that help us imagine what the world should look like – rather than what it does look like – so we can begin to move towards a positive place.

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