For this action I have produced and pasted up a series of posters at 52 sites in inner Melbourne/Narrm, near where I live and work. These posters juxtapose an image and a question and ask viewers to answer them. These posters stand out among the visual clutter that surrounds them, provoking us to think rather than trying to convince us to buy something. As people start to emerge from their houses, they are greeted by these posters, offering images of otherworldly relationships that inflect the questions that accompany them with feelings of care and wonder.
These are invitations to contribute. They are inclusive rather than accusatory. They start from a place that assumes the viewer’s agency and value. I think this position is vital in a world where we seem to stagger from one crisis to the next. As I write this, the pandemic itself is being edged out of the headlines by the sudden visibility of the 400-year-old crisis of violence against African Americans. This distracts from our local history of genocide and deaths in custody much as the coronavirus eclipsed the predictable (and indeed predicted) climate change apocalypse of Australia’s last fire season. It is overwhelming.
For this reason we need to ask these questions, and all the others that need to be asked. We need to do it now. And art should be part of that. There is a reason why people pay to put advertising posters up: it is because other people look at them. It is an amazing opportunity to insert art into this context. People are used to seeing posters telling them to think something, but rarely are they asked what they think. I really do wish I had a selection of answers to post instead of questions. I wish I knew what to do. However, this is not something that will be solved by one person who thinks they know what to do. It is actually really hard to figure out how to even ask the questions in a way that doesn’t presuppose the answer or overshadow the process with shame.
It seems to me that now is perhaps the best moment we’ve had in a long time to ask the hard questions and actually look for some new answers, or get behind the hard answers that we’ve avoided. Now is the time to start the conversation. That is an action that is worth taking.
Patricia Piccinini was born in Sierra Leone and lives in Melbourne. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Victorian College of the Arts and Bachelor of Arts ( Economic History) from the Australian National University. Piccinini is Enterprise Professor in Visual Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.
Her work encompasses sculpture, photography, video and drawing and her practice examines the increasingly nebulous boundary between the artificial and the natural as it appears in contemporary culture and ideas. Her surreal drawings, hybrid animals and vehicular creatures question the way that contemporary technology and culture changes our understanding of what it means to be human and wonders at our relationships with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. While ethics are central, her approach is ambiguous and questioning rather than moralistic and didactic.
In 2003 her exhibition We Are Family represented Australia at the 50th Venice Biennale before touring to the Hara Museum (Tokyo). Other solo museum exhibitions include ComCiência at CCBB (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte), Curious Affection at QAGOMA (Brisbane), En Kaerlig Verden at Arken (Copenhagen), Hold Me Close To Your Heart at Arter (Istanbul), Once Upon a Time at AGSA (Adelaide), as well as numerous solo and group shows and Biennials in Europe, UK, USA, South America, Asia and Australia. Notable groups exhibitions include The Universe and Art at Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and Face Up at the Hamburger Bahnhof (Berlin). In 2013 she was commissioned by the Centenary of Canberra to create The Skywhale.
As tempting as it sounds, we cannot return to a state of primordial nature. Human technology will always be some part of a world that supports billions of humans. Ironically, the impact of our own technology is undoubtedly at the core of much that threatens the human species, from climate change to pandemics. So where can we turn if we are looking for a way to repair the world? Perhaps the question of whether technology is good or bad is as useless as it is impossible to answer. Maybe it’s not about ‘whether’ but about ‘when’: when is technology the problem and when is it the solution? That might be a question we can actually answer.
I really believe that the way forward is through care. The only good that has come out of this time has been the moments where we reached out to help another. But not everybody has been lucky enough to be included in that circle of care. Is there room in our hearts for those outside of our own bubbles? Is there room for the different, the strangers, the others? We are capable of care, so we must be capable of caring for more than just our own kind. In many ways this is the central challenge of my work, this challenge to care more, to open our hearts further. We have the word ‘xenophobia’, but we lack a word for its opposite: We need a word for the newfound feeling of warmth towards something that we were previously disturbed by.