Su Baker (SB): Tell me about the last 18 months? What has it been like for you?
Patricia Piccinini (PP): It has been very strange, very emotional, as an artist and as a mother and a person. Sometimes it all feels very close and overwhelming and other times it seems quite distant. As you mention, I have been very grateful to have the exhibition at Flinders Street to work towards. I always wanted this to be a show about resilience and celebration, and it turns out we need those things more than ever. The show has been so well received and Rising went to so much trouble to make it COVID safe. It had been booked out and then ‘Bang!’ we get locked down and it has to close. And then we open again, and it starts to build momentum again and we lock down again. Maybe that is a good metaphor for our lives right now, especially as artists. We just have to keep getting up again and moving forward, and that is what the show will do. It will open again, and people will go see it again, and that makes me hopeful.
SB: Has anything changed in your practice of making art, and showing the work? Have you made any changes to the way you work?
PP: To be honest, it hasn’t had as much of an impact on the way I create as I thought it might. It has just made everything harder to do. But, in some ways it’s almost too early to tell. I think that’s what I’m just realising at the moment. When it started it was a shock, and it was different, but like most of us, I had a bunch of things in the pipeline. So, there was this sense of trying to work through things in a context where getting anything done was difficult, but I was working towards something. Lots of things were re-scheduled and shifted, but we were still working on projects that originated before COVID. So, I was working within COVID, trying to get through from one complication to next, and ‘real life’ was sort of on hold. It’s like the first lockdown: it was almost like a timeout from life. What’s happening now, as it stretches out, is that it feels like everything is slowing down. I think this is as much emotional as practical: It’s like we’ve used up everything that we had ‘banked’ and now we have to start building it up again from scratch. So that’s where I am now, feeling like I have to start building up momentum again. So, I think it’s now that we’ll start to see what the real impacts are going to be. What are the long-term changes? That’s what I’m really thinking about now.
SB: Do you have any broad comments/observations about the impact of COVID on art and artists?
PP: I think what has been most interesting is that the impact has been so incredibly varied. It’s not like everybody has experienced the same things by any means, and that really shows how the art world is not nearly as monolithic as the name suggests. For some artists it has been a wonderfully productive time, and even pretty strong in terms of sales. For others it has been incredibly dispiriting. For artists who focus on public engagement, people in performance or whose works are primarily realised in exhibition spaces it has been devastating. Everybody is trying to refocus their efforts and adapt, and that is easier for some than for others. It’s like the whole virtual realm, some things work better in that realm and some things don’t work at all.
I think we’re also seeing that those very basic things, like the physical experience of viewers in a space, are still really fundamental. As people we do really need and want that sort of experience. I think it has given us a chance to gauge what translates and what doesn’t. I don’t think this is generational either. I know from the experience of the Rising exhibition, there are a broad range of people who are turning up for the show, and who are really glad for the very fact of its tangibility. Definitely some of the things that have moved online during COVID will stay online, but there are other things that people will want to come back to.
SB: Anything else that you have been thinking about during this period. You have a strong international presence, so how has this changed?
PP: That aspect has been really weird. I’ve had four fairly major solo museum shows in Europe over the last 18 months, and I’m soon to open my fifth. And I haven’t seen any of them. Obviously, they have also been impacted by COVID closures, but they’ve all gone ahead, and had really good responses. The studio has had to be very adaptable and organised. Installing via video chat is not easy, so we’re having to do all the planning through 3D visualisations rather than just being able to walk around the space and see how things connect.
But it is so strange for me to be so disconnected from something that is so central to my practice. Public exhibitions have always been the main focus of work, and these shows are really the reason I make art. So to have these incredible opportunities to interact with audiences in other communities and to miss out on all of them is pretty disappointing. At the same time, I realise how fortunate I am to have these exhibitions, and for them to go ahead despite everything. I think the work has really resonated with people during this particular time, also. So I’m really proud that despite everything the work can still connect with such a broad audience.