Reimagining Our Relationship With Nature Through Art

Reimagining Our Relationship With Nature Through Art

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The creature has the pointed beak and fin of a dolphin but the sagging jowls and stomach of someone getting on in years. Straggly blonde hair trails out of its blowhole and down to its dorsal fin. Its fleshy body is mottled like it’s been in the cold a bit too long.

It’s grotesque. I can’t decide if the doleful and all-too-human expression on its face makes it more or less bearable.

But there’s something loving in the way its hands are curled protectively around the young girl in its lap, webbed fingers delicate and careful against her back and knees. The girl, meanwhile, looks like she’s having a nice nap.

The upstairs rooms of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, open to the public for the first time in 25 years, are filled with sculptures like this, hybrid creatures both familiar and alien, created by the Australian artist Patricia Piccinini.

“It’s asking us to make that journey from feeling averse and uncomfortable around something we’re unsure about, to warmth and connection,” Piccinini said of the exhibition, called “A Miracle Constantly Repeated.” “That’s a hard thing to do, to make that journey. We’re not used to doing that.”

The exhibition was designed as part of Rising, the new Melbourne arts festival, and is one of the few events to survive the lockdowns that forced the cancellation of much of the festival.

Tens of thousands of Victorians have flocked to see one of Australia’s pre-eminent contemporary artists in one of Melbourne’s most mythological spaces. I visited it one afternoon earlier this week, driven by the desire to be out of my house as much as possible after two weeks of lockdown (and just before we got hit by another one).

The show reimagines our relationship with nature, a subject that feels particularly prescient now as wildfires burn in the United States and floods and fire ravage parts of Europe. Piccinini says she started planning for it during the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, and concerns about the environment are threaded through her works.

The aforementioned aquatic creature, in “No Fear of Depths,” is based on the threatened Australian humpback dolphin, while other works imagine how animals might be modified to survive dangers like trash in the ocean and introduced predator species.

“The problem is that when we allow ourselves to be apart from nature, we can act on the rest of nature and think that it’s not going to affect us,” she said. “This dichotomous relationship just isn’t working anymore for us.”

Instead, her works portrays relationships of care and connection and invite the same from the viewer. “Sapling” depicts a man hoisting a tree-child hybrid on his shoulders, its fleshy roots curled playfully around his torso. In “While She Sleeps” a pair of naked leonine-faced creatures based on the extinct thylacine huddle together as if for warmth, liquid eyes gazing out at the viewer.

Piccinini’s creatures are unsettlingly realistic, from the fine dustings of hair on their skins to the tiny wrinkles where their fingers and toes bend. Within the cracked and peeling walls of the normally empty Flinders Street Station ballroom, where the sounds of the surrounding city are muffled and distant, it feels like the creatures could step right off their pedestals. You can’t help but recognize something familiar in all of them, no matter how strange they look.

“Much of my work is about making connections,” she said. “Connections between ideas, but also emotional connections between the works and the viewers. I really do hope that there is a space for everyone in this exhibition. The work springs from the basic assumption that all life, all bodies, all beings are beautiful and valuable.”

The exhibition runs until January 16.

Now for our stories of the week:

  • Megachurch Co-Founder Is Charged With Concealing Child Sexual Abuse. The Australian police alleged that Brian Houston, senior pastor at Hillsong, had failed to report assault by his father in the 1970s.

  • U.S. men’s basketball defeats Australia and heads to the gold medal game. The U.S. will play France in the final on Saturday.

  • World’s Coronavirus Infection Total Passes Staggering Figure: 200 Million. Vaccines have weakened the link between surging cases and serious illness, but in vaccine-deprived parts of the world, the deadly pattern remains.

  • As Hikers Vanish, These Mountains Hold Tight to Their Mysteries. The high country of southern Australia is “remote and beautiful and unpredictable,” a place where visitors can be swallowed up without a sound.

  • The Best Movies and TV Shows New to Netflix, Amazon and Stan in Australia in August. Our picks for August, including ‘The Chair,’ ‘The L Word’ and ‘Annette’

  • Will These Places Survive a Collapse? Don’t Bet on It, Skeptics Say. A pair of English researchers found that New Zealand is best poised to stay up and running as climate change continues to wreak global havoc. Other scientists found flaws in their model.

  • In Weight Lifting, a Historic Moment for Transgender Women. A sport that rarely makes headlines was at the center of the Olympics on Monday as the first openly transgender woman competed in the Games.

  • Payments App Square to Acquire Australian Company Afterpay. The deal, for $29 billion, would introduce Afterpay’s “buy now, pay later” service to U.S. consumers and the small businesses that process their credit card transactions on Square.

  • With seven medals at one Olympics, Emma McKeon ties a record. McKeon’s haul ties her for the record by any female Olympian, set in 1952 by gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya of the Soviet Union.

  • In swimming’s finale, the U.S. men keep their unbeaten streak alive, and Emma McKeon gets her 7th medal. McKeon picked up two more golds, giving her a record-tying seven medals in Tokyo, and Caeleb Dressel swam away with his fourth and fifth golds.

  • Olympics’ First Openly Transgender Woman Stokes Debate on Fairness. Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weight lifter from New Zealand, will compete on Monday, as some question her right to be at the Games.

Credit…An Rong Xu for The New York Times

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