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Artist Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures of hybrid and transgenic species evoke a future where the environment is dramatically changed by human intervention – whether for better or worse is in the eye of the beholder. “We don’t create for art’s sake, for beauty’s sake. We create to make the world ‘a better place’, but are we actually doing that?” By Donna Lu.

Patricia Piccinini’s changing nature

Patricia Piccinini
Credit: Phoebe Powell

In the corner of a bright, high-ceilinged room in Brisbane’s South Bank, a girl sits knock-kneed, cradling a newborn. Her entire face and body is covered with thick dark hair; she has hypertrichosis – commonly known as werewolf syndrome. The baby she is holding has hungry lips and chubby legs, but has large, finger-like appendages in place of a face. Across the room, a boy is gently reaching towards another faceless being, a wombat-like creature that has opened its pouch to show him its young. 

These bizarrely affecting vignettes are sculptures in Curious Affection, Patricia Piccinini’s exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Photographs of her works have filled my Instagram feed since the exhibition opened in March. After finally observing them in the flesh, I find myself unable to stop thinking about them, as a line from a Lorde song loops in my head: “Make-believe / it’s hyper real”.

That’s exactly what Piccinini’s sculptures are: uncannily lifelike, with sunspots, wrinkles, real hair and the blue of shallow veins. And then there are the eyes, which have all the depth and warmth of the real thing and even seem to reflect light in the same way.

The sculptures in Curious Affection took almost three years to make, Piccinini tells me when we meet at her Collingwood studio on a chilly Melbourne morning. She is wearing a grey ombré cardigan over a dress, with fluoro red runners, having walked from home. We chat in her office within the studio, a spacious room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The far wall is covered with photographs, sketches and paintings of animals, her own work and other art. A magnificent taxidermic peacock is perched on a high wooden ledge, its iridescent plumage obscuring a photo of a gorilla behind it.

It’s a Friday, and many in her team have the day off, but our conversation is punctuated by the sounds of stapling in the studio proper, an airy industrial space where an angle grinder whirs tinnily from time to time. Piccinini’s husband and collaborator, Peter Hennessey, who is also an artist, is constructing a crate for a sculpture of hers that they are sending to Copenhagen. For years, the couple have worked with a core group of experts to bring Piccinini’s conceptions to life, a process that includes digital design, sculpting, moulding and painting. Much of her sculptural work is made from silicone, fibreglass and real hair, of which thousands of strands are individually needle-punched in.

Many may be familiar with one of Piccinini’s creations without realising: last year a figure of hers, called “Graham”, made international headlines. A collaboration with the Victorian Transport Accident Commission, “Graham” is a rendering of what a person who has evolved to withstand the forces of a car accident might like look. He has a thick, protruding skull, no neck, and a barrel-like chest to better withstand the impact of collision.

Piccinini’s work can be disconcerting, but it eschews gratuitous provocation or violence. “It’s not shocking you so that you can’t even look at it,” she says. Her hands move with animation as she speaks. “It can hold us. But at the same time, there’s some pretty intense things.”

Taking inspiration from scientific advances, many of her creatures are chimeras, fusing characteristics from multiple species and even inanimate objects. Some elicit a mixture of pathos and revulsion, such as Teenage Metamorphosis, in which a creature lies on a blue peshtemal towel, as if at the beach. He is part human, part pig, and his back has the ridges of a running shoe. A stereo player and an open copy of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis sit beside him as he stares at the sky. The creature, with the downy beginnings of facial hair, is redolent of teenage angst, and one wonders whether he, like Gregor Samsa, has awoken from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into something others find monstrous. 

Piccinini’s interest in science, which she believes has replaced myth and religion as the dominant language used to explain the world, manifests in grappling with the ethics of genetic manipulation and technological progress.

In The Young Family, for example, a work that in 2003 consolidated Piccinini’s reputation internationally when it was presented at the Australian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, a tired-looking mother – a pig–human hybrid – suckles her young. Pigs, whose organs are similar in size to that of humans, have long been researched as potential sources for cross-species organ donation, known as xenotransplantation. Piccinini’s transgenic family has been bred for this purpose, but while the work hints at animal mistreatment, it does so without sanctimony.

Piccinini is optimistic about the possibilities of technology, citing IVF in helping her conceive her first child, and personalised medicine in the treatment of cancer as positive examples. “I think technology has a lot to bring us. I don’t present a dystopian vision of the world, but it’s also not a paradise. It’s a place where there’s enough room for the viewer to create meaning. So that’s why my work is quite ambiguous.”

In the 24-hour news cycle, “it’s so rare that you have … situations where you’re not just spoonfed” information or moral judgements about right and wrong, Piccinini says. Her goal is to create “the right conditions for a moment, a transformative moment, where you can come to your own conclusions about things”.

The effect, walking through Curious Affection, is an immersion into a world that holds the potential for alternative futures or realities. The exhibition is Piccinini’s biggest to date, comprising more than 70 works that occupy the entire ground floor of QAGOMA, including The Field, a breathtaking installation of 3000 transgenic flowers. They are fused in form with the Venus of Willendorf, a Palaeolithic figurine associated with fertility. Fecundity recurs throughout the exhibition, in the form of fruiting bodies, mothers and children, and hunched men-cum-cowboy boots who guard eggs at their feet. Four paintings – drops of pastel silicone that form concentric circles – are pleasantly evocative of nipples. “The whole world, it’s about the cycle and the potential of life,” says Piccinini. It conjures a paradoxical mix of calm and disquiet, a sense of bittersweet wonder in the knowledge that fertility is transient, milk dries up, babies too quickly become adults, flowers wilt, and death is certain.

 

In the studio, Piccinini leads me into the painting room, where the second edition of a work titled Kindred is being put together. Although the team creates moulds and could produce multiple editions of each work, she explains that only three are made.

A still-hairless orangutan mother is holding one of its two children, whose humanoid head hasn’t yet been attached. Another child, this one completely human, is lying on a separate table. In the complete sculpture, “it’s like a sliding scale of animal-ness”, Piccinini says. “We look at them and go, ‘Oh, they’re so different! Why does she have a human baby?’

“You really come to the realisation that this work is not about difference, it’s not about hierarchies of intelligence or whatever we imagined evolution to be like … What this work is really about is how connected they are.”

By evoking such connections, her work challenges assumptions about humanity. “What does it mean to be human today, when we know that other animals are just as evolved as us – they just have a different intelligence? What does it mean to be human today when we know they have almost the same DNA?” She calls for empathy that transcends physical appearance at a time when we’re “keeping refugees out”, and questions the “barriers and boundaries we put up to others and other creatures”.

Piccinini’s sensibility may be influenced by firsthand experience of feeling like an outsider. Born in Sierra Leone when it was an English colony, she left with her parents when the civil war began. A short stay in Italy was followed by a happier move to Australia, where the family arrived when Piccinini was seven. “Being a migrant, I always felt dislocated and kind of without roots and out of culture. Part of my thing about art making is that … I place myself inside, looking around, with other people.”

Time spent sketching in pathology museums in her mid to late 20s deepened an understanding of the seemingly grotesque. “I was interested in seeing the body in terms of ornament.” Realising that internal anatomy varies widely between people was “interesting and liberating”, but seeing specimens of large tumours was difficult. “I just felt such empathy for the person whose life was taken away.” In a similar vein, Piccinini has also previously cited Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a touchstone, expressing sympathy for Dr Frankenstein’s monster in its neglect and disenfranchisement.

 

In the last room of Curious Affection, a couple embrace in bed in a vintage caravan, their back window open to a stormy vista. The male is asleep, his head resting on his partner’s shoulder. It’s a scene not incongruous with the youthful disposition of “van life” social media images, but for the fact that The Couple are human–bear chimeras, with ursine noses and claws that emerge from the fingers and toes.

The diorama they look out onto – inspired by Queensland’s Glass House Mountains – is populated with curious wildlife: miniature lions with tyres for manes, and penguin-like creatures with what look like anuses in place of faces. I love that they’re called Butthole Penguins, I tell her. “They’re funny! Because penguins are funny! ... The way they walk, their characters. They’re [also] incredibly resilient … They navigate through smell and the celestial sky.”

The creatures evoke Surrealist works, which Piccinini admires for their sense of humour and strangeness. The diorama has several layers of meaning. It’s “an environment which is obviously artificial but talking about nature, that is inhabited by these creatures that refer to real creatures that are endangered”.

In the course of our conversation, Piccinini mentions facts about some of the animals that either feature in or have inspired her works. Sloths, for example, hang so still that mould and algae grow in their fur. Certain birds of prey have adapted to urban living and make their homes on skyscrapers. 

Her interest in animals has developed over time, she says, as she has become more aware of the environment being at risk and the “sorts of devastating effects that this will have for not just us but for future generations. I think that’s sort of pushed my hand. I can’t not make work about this, because I feel that it’s important.” Piccinini worries about the environmental problems millennials and younger generations will inherit, as a result of “short-term avarice, very incredibly myopic goals, for the wealth of a select few”.

She talks about The Welcome Guest, one of the exhibition’s most striking works, in which a sloth-like creature and a rapt human girl stand on a bed, about to embrace each other while a peacock watches on. “If nature can create this beautiful creature which is just about beauty – it’s not about function, the peacock can’t kill anything, can’t run away, can’t hide, it’s only evolved because of its beauty – if nature can select for beauty, can we also select for beauty when we create?”

Piccinini questions the virtue that is supposedly inherent in technological progress. “We don’t create for art’s sake, for beauty’s sake. We create to make the world ‘a better place’, but are we actually doing that?” 

“Ultimately, the question is: What is a good enough reason to change nature? We’ve changed nature for profit and to make our lives more convenient. That’s why we’ve done it. But is that good enough, really?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Piccinini’s operation". Subscribe here.

Donna Lu
is a Brisbane-based writer.

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