Monday, September 6, 2010


NB I wrote this post a few weeks ago, but decided not to post it because it read like an essay and I thought my readers may find it boring! In light of Sarah Wilson's latest column on random acts of kindness, it became topical so I decided to post it after all. Here is part of my comment on Sarah's blog so you can gain a little insight into why I found this exhibition so compelling:

Sarah, I kind of disagree when you say that kindness doesn’t come naturally… I believe that it is the unnatural things in our lives – money, time, social structures – that encourage us to quell our natural kindness, but that everybody has a desire to be kind, which is a driving force. Most people have to LIMIT that kindness to a certain circle, maybe just family and close friends, as a way of protecting themselves (survival, as you say). Tim Minchin (my favourite comedian in the world, not to be confused with Nick Minchin, the sickeningly smug politician) has a song called “If you open up your mind too much, your brain will fall out”. Well, I think most people think that if they extend their compassion too far, their hearts will fall out.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia to see Australian sculptress Patricia Piccinini's exhibition entitled "Relativity". As you can probably tell from the photos, her pieces are a little creepy. They make you feel uncomfortable and want to look away... but then, you can't help but take another glance, and step a little closer.

The exhibition is intended to force us to question "what makes us human?" When we look at these grotesque creatures, we have an innate desire to separate ourselves from them... but we can't. Patricia imbues them with a humanness that forces us to feel empathy, which shocks and surprises us. The creatures' vulnerability - whether due to childlikeness or frailty - gives us a sense of protectiveness over them. And once you look at them for long enough, they have a oddly sweet quality.

Patricia has identified her ethos as "I feel, therefore I think". Her pieces help us to tap into our innate kindness and humility, as well as extending our awareness of the way we project our own fears and insecurities onto others. When we first see these creatures, we feel anxiety and disgust. Why? These are just sculptures! They can't touch us. So why do we feel so uncomfortable in their presence?

Society teaches us that to be human is the penultimate state. Humans are the smartest, most valuable creatures on earth. Everything else – animals, trees, plants, water – is at our disposal; they are subject to our needs and desires. We can manipulate them for our own benefit because we have a certain "specialness" about us that makes us more important than anything else. These kinds of assumptions are gradually changing but I've noticed that a lot of people tend to live in a condition of willful ignorance... which, of course, makes it easy to be callous.

Patricia often pairs her creatures with children. Their innocence reminds us of a time when we were quick to offer trust and unconditional love, and slow to make judgments. We can learn so much from reminiscing about our childhoods. The children also represent the future, and the fact that things can change for the better if we only remain in touch with our hearts. This extends to our relationship with the "other" in general... other animals, all living things, as well as other people of different races and ethnicities, backgrounds and life experiences, those who are younger or older than ourselves.

So what to take away from this? We should not allow our fears to overtake us. We have to let go of the notion that we, as humans, are more valuable than any other living creature. We need to allow ourselves to empathise with other people or creatures who are different to us, instead of shielding ourselves from that compassion as a subconscious means of protecting ourselves. We can turn a blind eye to the experience and suffering of others, if we deliberately keep our distance, but when we look into their eyes, we cannot help but connect with them and feel for them. Humanity does not just consist of intelligence and survival instinct. Our greatest gift is the ability to intuitively empathise and feel attachment towards other living things - because that it what gives us the desire to improve things, and the responsibility of acting upon that yen.

“If you’re listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold even more wonders.”
— Andrew Harvey


belsmusings said...

Laura I love your work and would love to see some of your writing in print xo

Laura Valerie said...

Oh thank you Bel, that is so kind of you! xx