The Clemenger BBDO Auditorium was full of people eagerly awaiting the presentation from Patricia Piccinini, one of Australia’s leading artists. Organised by the National Gallery of Victoria Women’s Association (NGVWA), this was the association’s first in-person event in two years. The lecture was also two years in the making, according to the NGVWA’s president Tania Brougham who introduced Piccinini. In this time, Piccinini’s work has been showing at seven major galleries, including in Melbourne above Flinders Street Railway Station in the rarely seen ballroom. And while the world is coming to know Piccinini (although most in the art world have been tracking her rise for decades), due to COVID-19, she was unable to be part of the installation of her works at any of the European galleries.

“We need to establish a different relationship to the environment, finding a new way of understanding nature and the problems faced in the light of climate change. It’s also about valuing relationships,” says Piccinini, who spoke to Stephen Crafti about her work in the NGV’s Garden Restaurant, where guests anticipated her lecture to follow.

Given Piccinini was unable to visit overseas galleries, she decided to focus her lecture on key works in each exhibition, from Omframa Framhden in Sweden in 2020 to the exhibition in Melbourne (which closes in June), where she was able to install her pieces personally with her team. Even those who haven’t seen Piccinini’s impressive exhibition in Melbourne would have been delighted to see her two extraordinary Skywhales drift over the city’s skyline. These 25-metre-high balloons were the starting point for the lecture. “You read about people who look into the eyes of a whale. It literally transforms their lives. Art can have the same effect,” says Piccinini, who was keen to see whales float in the sky rather than their usual sea habitat. Complete with baby whales surrounding the papa whale balloon, there’s a sense of nurturing, something that’s continually repeated in all of this artist’s work.

In the Swedish exhibition, The Couple, two life-sized silicon sculptures are intertwined on a bed and are framed by hundreds of porcelain bats, morphed like the couple. Inspired by the author of Frankenstein, it was also an opportunity for Piccinini to marvel at her favourite author, Mary Shelley. “Mary wasn’t just a great author she was also concerned about slavery and the way the sugar industry was built on its back. I can imagine if Mary and I were having afternoon tea together, we would be nibbling unsweetened biscuits,” says Piccinini.

From Sweden to Finland, with the Helsinki exhibition Between the Shadows and the Soul, Piccinini selected her work, The Sapling, to discuss some of the thought processes and values that contribute to her art. Resting on the shoulders of an adult male, a plant-like creature with its extruded ‘limbs’ not only reaches out to the sky for light, but is also wrapped around the man’s shoulders, like his child. “Plants are like people. Both need nurturing,” says Piccinini, who sees this recent work as quite Mannerist in style. In Austria, with her exhibition Embracing the Future, Piccinini explored motherhood.

Patricia Piccinini, NGVWA

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Patricia Piccinini, NGVWA

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Patricia Piccinini, NGVWA

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With slight melancholy in some of her works, few if any, aren’t moved by Piccinini’s creatures. Her ‘Cleaner’, exhibited in Tallinn in Estonia in 2021, is a hybrid between the great leatherback turtle and a vacuum cleaner - in this case a bright yellow structure moulded to its back - with its mournful eyes holding one spellbound. Reflecting on the damage being done to the oceans, including the destruction of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, accompanying images were of these turtles being strangled with the flotsam and jetsam of rubbish such as plastic bags, strangling them to death well before they even have time to reproduce.

For the Melbourne exhibition, titled A Miracle Constantly repeated and commissioned by the Rising Festival, Piccinini selected The Rescuers, a young couple holding a plastic washing basket. This work was inspired by seeing a woman on television during the disastrous Australian bushfires in the summer of 2020. She was running for her life, carrying a distraught koala suffering from burns - wrapped in the woman’s T-shirt, it was a memorable conclusion to Piccinini’s extraordinary lecture. Her sister, sitting in the audience, confirmed the Piccinini ‘DNA’ as she was shown on the screen trying to save an ancient tree in the City of Manningham in Melbourne’s north-east (where she was also formerly the mayor) from being destroyed for the sake of widening a thoroughfare (thankfully this tree was saved).

For those who were fortunate to hear Piccinini speak at the NGV, her words, as well as the images of her work, will resonate well into the future. It was an impassioned presentation and a rare honour to see one of the world’s great artists explain the thinking behind key pieces exhibited in leading galleries and museums. And while we, like Piccinini, weren’t able to see first-hand these exhibitions due to the pandemic, it was a privilege to be talked through them, led by the great artist herself.

Kay & Burton is the proud Principal Event Sponsor of the NGVWA.

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