Patricia Piccinini brings Flinders Street station’s forgotten ballroom back to life

·9 min read

Halfway down the north face of Melbourne’s Flinders Street station there is a doorway. It’s an elegant, imposing structure – two curved stone arches set inside one another. This is not a doorway that is trying to be invisible and yet for decades it has been hiding in plain sight, rarely opened and never to the public; the casual passer-by would likely only see it in its guise as one of the many alcoves in the CBD frequented by pigeons, black-clad teens, or those fallen on hard times.

Every city has its near-mythological spaces. One of Melbourne’s most persistent lies beyond that doorway. Above this pulsing heart of the city, above the bustling subways and platforms and seemingly never-empty thoroughfare, a whole wing of Flinders Street station has lain disused for decades. Storage spaces collecting dust bunnies and damp. Meeting rooms that remain silent. Chains from old punching bags still hanging from the beams of an empty gymnasium where scores from long-forgotten boxing matches mark the walls. And finally, at the end of the hall, a huge and dilapidated ballroom – its parquetry floor coming away in chunks, paint peeling from the walls.

  • The ballroom at Flinders Street station in July 2013. Photo: Alicia Taylor

These spaces are more than a century old, and have been closed to the public for 35 years. Now, for Melbourne’s new winter arts festival, Rising, they will come alive again in a very different way, becoming home to a host of strange beings – the site of Patricia Piccinini’s new exhibition, A Miracle Constantly Repeated.

Piccinini’s work has been lauded from Venice to Vancouver and all around Australia – most people recognise her for the Skywhale, or Graham, and the myriad fleshy and grotesque, beautiful and alien creatures she creates – but this is her first solo show in nearly 20 years to be staged in her home town of Melbourne. And it makes a curious kind of sense that Piccinini should be the one to herald the reopening to the city of such a legendary space as the third floor of Flinders Street station.

The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition space is a diorama: a forest, full of ferns, strange creatures and trees that stretch into the dilapidated ceiling. “It’s an artificial space, that’s talking about a natural space,” says Piccinini. A site of industry, positioned as an incubator for a new kind of natural world.

  • ‘We’ve inherited this idea that we are here and nature’s over there’: one of Patricia Piccinini’s creatures.

Piccinini’s work has always involved embracing and working beyond contradictions. Speaking to Guardian Australia at her studio in Collingwood, the artist explains that the concerns of her work have shifted over the decades. Once, she was interested primarily in our relationship with our own bodies. More recently, though – particularly as dealing with climate crisis has become ever more urgent – her concerns have become far more existential. What she wants now, she says, is to spark in her audiences a new kind of understanding about the relationships between people and the world.

The dichotomies we’ve drawn between nature and culture, human and animal, structure and wildness, are failing us and the planet, Piccinini says. “We’ve inherited this idea that we are here and nature’s over there. That distinction? That boundary? It actually doesn’t work anymore.”

Many of Piccinini’s characters are chimeras: mythical creatures formed of familiar parts, made unfamiliar in their synthesis. She lifts a plastic sheet to reveal one of them, unfinished – a hunched, corpulent creature with fleshy, human-like skin and fingers and soft, tender eyes, wrapped in a protective gesture around a human child still covered in clingfilm.

  • Piccinini’s characters are often chimeras: mythical creatures formed of familiar parts, made unfamiliar in their synthesis.

“This is a portrait of maternity,” Piccinini says; a “mother chimera” based on the vulnerable Australian humpback dolphin. She enthuses about the animals, the sophistication of their relationships with each other, their intelligence. “Not that that matters,” she says. “We should just love them for who they are. Why do we have to say this attribute is better than another?”

At the heart of the humpback dolphin sculpture, she says, is a question: “How do we build our lives together with other, more-than-human animals? And how can it be a nurturing relationship? How can we have an understanding and experience of nature, which is not just about this very traditional idea of pristine nature, untouched by humans? Because that doesn’t exist, and the idea is not workable anymore.”

You look at things in a way that you normally wouldn’t, in a space that you normally wouldn’t be in.

Patricia Piccinini

A Miracle Constantly Repeated raises challenging questions about how we think about built heritage, especially when that heritage – like the station itself – comes freighted with the legacy of precisely the kinds of ideas that Piccinini is dissembling.

At the turn of the 20th century, the train was a symbol of progress, of modernity – an idea directly tied to a notion of human hierarchy, and to a philosophical division between people and the natural world. Trains have been running at the Flinders Street site since 1854, only a few short decades after British colonisation of the Kulin lands that we now call Melbourne: a violent process involving the deaths and dispossession of many Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Wathaurong people who lived there, and obliteration of the wetlands and fertile grasslands of the region. Private companies built and ran the colony’s rail network until the Victorian government took it over in 1878, and constructed and opened the current Edwardian baroque-style station in 1910.

  • Ladies’ physical culture class c1931, Flinders Street station ballroom.

  • Left: apprentices inside Flinders Street ballroom, 1951. Right: a function held for Sir Rohan Delacombe in the Flinders Street ballroom.

The station itself became a central hub of Melbourne life. Traders and retail outlets peppered the building, and the Victorian Railways Institute – a kind of corporate counter to trade unions – ran language lessons, and physical culture classes in the gymnasium, and held dances and events in the ornate ballroom under the clock tower.

It was this way until around the 1970s. The building had begun falling into disrepair, and demolition plans were mooted; a green ban from the Builders Labourers Federation helped to preserve it. The National Trust listed it as significant in 1976, and it was heritage listed under statute in 1982. A report from the Victorian Heritage Register emphasises the station’s cultural history along with the station’s “[unique] eclectic design [that] represents an extraordinary example of a building type”. Still, the top floor of the building was closed in the 1980s and a number of controversial renovations were made to the station proper – including ripping out the stone archways that led to the platforms, replacing the pale blue and green ceramic tiles lining the main booking hall, and resurfacing the bluestone and asphalt platforms with cement.

The third floor languished unused until 2015, when the Victorian government began $100m worth of refurbishment works for the station. The clock, which had been showing the wrong time for years, was restored in 2018. Basic structural repair was made to the ballroom, too – steel struts and support beams were installed to stabilise the roof, behind which the original wooden beams are still visible. The decorative pressed tin ceiling has been removed, but remains in many places along the walls and ceiling of the surrounding corridors and rooms, appearing like decorative moulded plaster – until it begins rusting at the edges and coming away in sheets.

  • Patricia Piccinini stands next to the Mother Tree, part of her exhibition, A Miracle Constantly Repeated.

Few have found their way in here since the 1980s. A collective of artists occupied the ballroom and clock tower in 2012, which was when Hannah Fox, co-artistic director of Rising festival with Gideon Obarzanek, first saw inside. More recently, some members of the public gained access through a very limited Melbourne Open House lottery. (Your correspondent was spirited in about 15 years ago by a friend of a friend who somehow accessed a key, and never forgot it.)

Fox and Obarzanek began negotiating the use of the ballroom, gymnasium and surrounding rooms two years ago. Piccinini and her team began working towards the exhibition and those very particular spaces with no guarantee the show would go ahead. With multiple stakeholders involved – including VicTrack, Metro, the station’s administration, the Department of Transport, Visit Victoria, Creative Victoria, and the City of Melbourne – negotiations dragged on until only days before the Rising program was announced in March this year. (At the time of writing, new restrictions have just come into force in Melbourne due to another coronavirus outbreak, adding a new layer of instability to launch proceedings.)

  • Welcoming visitors into the ballroom is a creature – part cat, human and running shoe all at once.

The exhibition involves “a lot of thinking”, Piccinini admits. “A lot of empathising and figuring out how you feel about things. Do I hate this? Am I repulsed by this? Am I really interested in this? How do I actually feel? Can I see myself in this situation? And then you get to the ballroom.”

The ballroom – the creative and cultural heart of the old station – is the pinnacle of the spaces in the exhibition in which you can have what Piccinini calls “a more sensory experience”. In its centre is the Mother Tree – part crane, part shattered mirror glass and neon lights – growing saplings in “in-vitro bubbles”. Welcoming visitors there is another creature: cat, human and running shoe all at once, mouth opened as if in full operatic voice, with long flaming nails curved upwards.

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Piccinini says part of her approach to reassessing our relationship to nature involves valorising things (trees, animals, small acts of kindness) that we might otherwise look right past. We often valorise elements of our built environment too – since the Rising program announcement, there’s been considerable excitement from the public about finally being able to see inside the ballroom – but how do we retain that sense of wonder at the products of labours past, while also recognising that the ideas that fuelled them are, like some of those structures themselves, falling irretrievably apart?

Piccinini may fervently reject dichotomies, but she isn’t interested in being didactic.

“I could be an environmentalist. I could be a politician. But I’m doing it this way,” she says. “In an aesthetic, sensually oriented way. You look at things in a way that you normally wouldn’t, in a space that you normally wouldn’t be in. And it gives you that moment to engage with these ideas differently.”

A Miracle Constantly Repeated by Patricia Piccinini is showing in the Flinders Street Ballroom and surrounds from 26 May as part of Melbourne’s Rising festival

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