Last year Melbourne a Rising Festival was planned in Melbourne to celebrate opening up again after the long 2020 lockdowns. My dad and I planned to go to the Wilds event at the end of May. It was cancelled due to lockdown. Oh well, we consoled ourselves, at least we still had tickets to Patricia Piccinini's 'A Miracle Constantly Repeated' exhibition in mid-July. It was cancelled due to lockdown. Our tickets moved to September but when it came around we were still in lockdown. Finally in December we were heading up the stairs to the 2nd floor of the Flinders Street Station Ballroom where the exhibition was housed.
I have seen a few exhibitions before by Patricia Piccinini. She makes sculptures that are a disturbing but thoughtful combination of real and imagined that are often both grotesque and sentimental. She describes it as "artificial nature". One memorable sculpture I saw a few year's back was a human modified to be able to withstand car accidents 'A Miracle Constantly Repeated' has many weird and tender sights but I found it so much more meaningful when we read the artist's tour notes. I will share brief notes with my photos but you can find more extensive tour notes on the exhibition website.
The exhibition started with a diorama which included The Defender, an imagined genetically engineered bettong which is far more fierce than the real life endangered bettong, to explore what might be consequences of changing and protecting nature.
In the next room we were confronted by Sapling, a sculpture that imagines the relationship between a human and a plant-animal creature to reflect the connection with nature. While there is something disturbing about the fleshy creature, the care with which the man hold it is rather sweet.
Continuing the themes of connecting with and caring for nature, The Rescuers depicts two tween girls rescuing a koala who has been burnt in the bushfires. The sculpture is full of pain at the effects of climate change, as well as hope in our youth and our empathy for nature.
Above and below is one of the Shoeforms, that explore "naturalised technology" depicted in this in a "surreal blending of elements that never quite settle into one category". It imagines how we might move forward in our thoughts of how to incorporate technology into our future.
It looked like a modern vase to me and I didn't find it easy to make sense of but when I looked closed I was really taken by the little faces which were on the ends of the sculpture.
Then there was a film called "We travel together". It follows a woman walking through the natural world, at times with a little creature that she lets go in a gesture of doing something to make the world better for others. I was rather taken by this cute little creature which seemed part echidna and part nifler (from the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie).
The Couple was inspired by Mary Shellye's Frankenstein. She imagines that if Frankenstein had been generous enough to give the monster a female companion so the couple could build a culture and a life for themselves, then the story might not have ended in tragedy. The hairy toes with the talons were rather creepy but also sweet in the intimacy of the couple lying under the sheets with each other.
The Couple is actually an installation with the desk, filing cabinet, shelves and even a box of footballs set up in the room. It was set in the recent pre-digital past with items that remind us of the time when we were not so reliant on screens and the cloud: a landline phone, a boombox stereo an even the filing cabinet.
No Fear of Depths depicts the maternal relationship. The young girl is Piccinini's daughter Roxy when she was that age. The mythical animal is partly based on the hump backed dolphin. There is so much tenderness and love in the way the child is held. The sculpture reflects on dichotomies, such as animal and human, focusing on what connects us rather than what separates us.
The Supporter explores the notion of cities as embracing nature. The human is strong enough to hold up the environment where little birds live in the fleshy nature. Again there is the theme of humans doing something for nature without expectation of reward.
How cute is this little fluffy bird! It is inspired by the peregrine falcons that nest in a Melbourne skyscraper each year. They create a flurry of local interest in the chicks hatching and growing. Here the human is imagined as the skyscraper.
Celestial Field is an installation where we are surrounded by nature but not quite nature. The sculptures reflect the white of the dead coral and the fertility of flowers. I found this rather beautiful, especially in the magificent faded old building. I felt bad when I knocked one of the white flowers off its stem, but I was assured by one of the guides that it happened often.
We then headed off to the Ballroom. Although the exhibition is said to be in the Flinders Street Station Ballroom. In fact all the exhibition I have described up until now was in the other rooms that were used for office, classrooms,meeting rooms, a gymnasium and a library. At the end of the exhibition we arrive at the famous ballroom that Melburnians have heard of but rarely have the opportunity to see. (Check out these historical photos.) My dad and I wanted to visit the exhibition as much for the building as the art.
In fact my dad was a bit starry eyed about the ballroom as he is almost certain that this is where his parents met. My grandfather was a ballroom dancer who swept my grandmother off her feet. My grandmother loved going to dances here. To get there, we had to pass by the cloakroom where the young ladies of Melbourne would check in their cloaks to reveal their lovely ballgowns.
In its heyday the ballroom would have been a rather grand space with a magnificent curved pressed metal ceiling and ornate arched windows. Now there is an air of faded grandeur. The ceiling is just the bones of the structure but the balcony where bands might have played is still at the end of the room, near a couple of smaller anterooms.
The exhibition is bold and bright in this old building but I think the young ladies of the midcentury ballroom would have enjoyed the fun of it. It has a mirror ball tree, neon lights and coloured glass mushrooms. Piccinini calls it the "party room". This amazing place is filled with history. This exhibition is creating a new layer of experience over a place and given it a chance to escape the neglect.
The most fun object in the Ballroom is La Brava. She was inspired by strong, confident and beautiful divas. Piccini says "she’s also a chimera but this time between an animal and an inanimate object; a running shoe". A running shoe! She is so bold and expressive, not comfy and supportive like a show!
I really loved the doorway to the corridor as seen from the ballroom. Not only can you see the exposed brickwork but there are just a few bits of a column like a ghost of past glories. It must have looked quite impressive in its heyday.
The distressed walls and pressed metal ceilings had a gentle faded beauty as we walked around the exhibition. The building dates back to 1910 and the last dance in the ballroom was in 1983. It has seen so many people come and go. I loved how there were little signs of those who had been. I really hope that the ballroom and other rooms might be renovated so that they are used again. But I hope if this happens that the design includes ways to retain some of the history in these ways and not just whitewash it out.
It was a great privilege to be able to walk around the ballroom and adjoining rooms as well as seeing the fascinating art installations. It is incredible that in the middle of Melbourne's city, Flinders Street Station so many people pass through the heart of the train network and yet above it are these mysterious buildings that have been off limits to the public for decades, even though they have been an important part of our heritage. I look forward to seeing the next chapter of the building's history.
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