Patricia Piccinini

Border Patrol

Patricia Piccinini’s art has been seen around the world—from Venice to Tokyo to Lima—but her recent work has a particularly antipodean tang.  Her invented creatures recall the hybrid peculiarities of animals such as the platypus; an animal whose discovery by Europeans was greeted with the suspicion that it had been cobbled together by the same imaginative taxidermists who produced unicorns and mermaids to confirm the prejudices of gullible naturalists.

The sensations of eighteenth century naturalism may seem quaint to us today, signs from a time before biology dwindled so far beyond the visible. The specialization of knowledge has taken science from the pastime of the talented amateur to the purview of the highly trained expert.  In spite of the efforts of popularisers, many of the everyday realities of scientific practice remain beyond the comprehension of those outside the field.  Genetic manipulation is a hotly contested issue, but how many of us could describe how it occurs?

Operating in this space between understanding and imagining, Piccinini’s work follows the contours of contemporary questions and anxieties.  Her experiments are formed out of silicone, fibreglass, hair, leather and pixels. She creates families of creatures, some grafted from familiar machines, some stitched together from animal models. The tableaux she presents are stagings of the porous boundaries of our bodies and our apparatus. Her artworks query man’s dominion over nature and our relation to technology.

Realised in media ranging from the digital to the sculptural, the highly finished surfaces of her artworks are important to the success of her project.  Her strange machines are seamless and beautifully detailed; her creatures show every follicle and freckle.  Piccinini’s process relies on the expertise of many collaborators:  scientists and upholsterers, embroiderers and custom detailers.  Her role is often a directorial one—her drawings and storyboards guide the dialogic process between artist and maker.

In early works where Piccinini did her own computer modeling, the technology used to build her creatures was more opaque. The insertion of her creations into the possible, into the realm of the everyday was less seamless. In works such as ‘The Mutant Genome Project’ (1994-5), images that advertise a customizable mutant offspring, the sheen on the surfaces is simple, the polygons under the skin show through. Nowadays the technologies for rendering hair, the algorithms for simulating skin are much more sophisticated. In the early days of computer graphics those sheeny surfaces were all that could be produced.  Nowadays it’s the inflections of rust and grime that distinguish the expert.

One strand of Piccinini’s practice presents an emotionally engaging world of modified creatures. Piccinini’s invented animals are weird but they engender our sympathy. Her creations are not beyond the world of the morphologically possible. Often they have an old man marsupial look, with expressively wrinkled faces, stained teeth, their pale skins dotted with pre-cancerous moles and wayward hairs.  They seem marked by the harsh southern sun; their ‘distressed’ surfaces evoke the irony that the real cyborgs in our culture, those in whom technology meets flesh, are not necessarily the geared-up youth, but the elderly with their plastic hips and intra-ocular lenses, hearing aids and pacemakers.  The visible senescence of her creations is particularly poignant in Game Boys Advanced (2002), figures of prematurely aged eight-year-old twins that explicitly evoke Dolly the cloned sheep, a scientific creation who aged quickly and died young.

For her recent suite of works, Piccinini has built a series of protectors for highly endangered Australian animals, putative creatures formulated for a specific purpose and let loose on the battered ecosystem.  There’s a bodyguard for the highly endangered bird, the golden helmeted honeyeater; a progenitor for the leadbeaters possum; a surrogate mother for the northern hairy-nosed wombat.  Those selected for assistance are all indigenous animals whose subtle adaptations to the peculiarities of their environment have left them vulnerable to the changes wrought by large-scale human habitation and competition from imported species.In Australia and New Zealand, both isolated by water, both late to colonisation, , our attitudes to introduced species illuminate relations between humans and our ideas of the natural that can sometimes be more difficult to perceive in other parts of the world. The indigenous peoples of both Australia and Aotearoa engaged in extensive programmes of species introduction, hunting and habitat modification, but it has been colonists of the modern era who have made the most devastating impact on native flora and fauna.  As well as enthusiastically logging and burning forests, gardeners introduced such homely favourites as gorse and broom, while acclimatisation societies released game animals—deer, trout, rabbits and pigs–hoping to shape a colonial idyll.

Our contemporary pursuit of habitat restoration and the nursing of marginalized species represents not only a preservationist attitude, but also speaks of attempts to salve our disjuncture from our environment, and contrition at the acts of our ancestors.  Pest-proof fences and native plant cultivation could in some lights be seen as convoluted expiations of post-colonial guilt.

Piccinini examines this activity and asks how far we are willing to go to undo the damage we’ve done to the environment.  She notes that such ideas as cloning the extinct Tasmanian tiger seem much more exciting than stopping logging in Tasmania and preserving the remaining health of a whole ecosystem.  Technological quick-fixes and ambitious environmental engineering have frequently exacerbated the problems they were intended to solve, or created a whole new problem—the voracious cane toad being a prime Australian example.  Introduced to eradicate the cane beetle which was damaging the valuable sugar industry, the toads have become an advancing wave of amphibian destruction, consuming anything big enough to fit in their mouth, native or exotic, animate or inanimate. And it’s not just the old world’s animals so disastrously inflicted on the new—possums and lorikeets do their bit for trans-Tasman relations.

While works such as Game Boys Advanced (2002) examine the frailty of the creations of science and our responsibilities to the new life we create, ‘Nature’s Little Helpers’—Piccinini’s current collection of photographs and sculptures—looks at the way organisms can exceed the expectations of their creators, at their vigour once they leave the lab. The title ‘Nature’s Little Helpers’ plays on the euphemistic description of addictive and numbing medications used to soothe the anxieties of women in post-war suburbia.  The name suggests a panacea that may have a high hidden cost.

Human activities have left huge gaps in the ecosystem. The golden helmeted honeyeater has a symbiotic relationship with the possum whose bite sets the sap that the bird eats flowing.  Declining numbers of possums means fewer honeyeaters.  So Piccinini has created a bodyguard for the bird, with a scaly carapace for protection and sharp teeth to perform the duties of the absent possums.

A series of photographs depicts the interactions of these invented animals in the suburban sprawl—the boundary lands of new highways and subdivisions encroaching on animal habitats.  Her photos show suburban scenes: a woman walking her dog along a street of brand new townhouses, construction sites, along with images of awkward and fearful campers in bush settings. Inserted into these scenes, bodyguards cling to the fence at a drag racing strip, tend to one of their number struck by traffic, face off with a bemused builder. They are comfortable as fringe dwellers, whether perched on a pile of rubbish or a mossy log, often seeming more at home than their human counterparts.

Explanatory texts are parenthesised within the titles of the works : ‘a typical family group with an infant has infested this construction site’. The tone mimics the soothing voice-overs of nature documentarians, which frame up a seamless narrative full of apposite emotional hooks, while simultaneously obscuring the highly constructed nature of the documentary form.  Piccinini’s blurbs sometimes read with, sometimes against, the content of the images.

Another sculpture, Surrogate (for the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat) 2004, is designed with a series of pouches down either side of her spine.  The creature has the tender pink ears, the receding hairline and slight paunch of an elderly fellow from the local swimming pool or bowling club. But the aura of a beatific old age pensioner is complicated by the creature’s strong claws and clearly maternal function.  The surrogate’s spine is lined with supernumerary pouches for efficient brooding of the highly endangered marsupials.  Wombats in various states of maturation peek out from her back—some newborns shiny and naked, others fuzzy and almost ready to leave. Posed on a baby blue leather surround, the surrogate has a gentle, but weary, smile.

None of Piccinini’s creatures are marooned on plinths, they all have their custom-made terrains—forms covered in imported Belgian leather, embellished with zips and embroidery. The Surrogate has a particularly plush environment, a topstitched and embroidered platform with a zippered dome where she can retire after a hard days mothering. The fiercer Bodyguard (for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater) (2004) clings to a form that resembles a sci-fi tree upholstered in contrasting tones of cream and burgundy.  The Progenitor (for the Leadbeater’s Possum) (2005), protectively cradling its young, pops out from the wall on supports that are part pram cover, part geodesic dome.  The dome of the Surrogate’s terrain, and the hemispheres from which the progenitors emerge, echo both marsupial pouches and the dome tent of the anxious campers in the photographs.   The form and finish of these supports evokes both auto detailing and minimalist sculpture. They act as protective enclosures, but have a little of the velvet-lined jewel case about them—suggesting that these creatures are consumer items of the most expensive kind.  The leather surfaces are smooth and inviting, but the leather is itself the skin of creatures stripped, tanned and dyed—flesh become product.

The shiny surfaces of Piccinini’s machine-inspired sculptures contrast with the soft and vulnerable surfaces of her animals. Lacquered fiberglass works spawned from helmets, cycles, cars and trucks play with detail and surface, with the automotive aesthetics of pop tops and petrol caps, of upholstery and interior mouldings; the licked-clean joins and padded fixings where ergonomics and streamlining meet.

Offspring of this inorganic yet humanised strand of Piccinini’s work, ‘Cyclepups’ (2005), are all based on the same moulds, differentiated by extravagant detailing: immaculate spray finishes, flames and pinstriping.  Coded by name (Mantis, Colt, Nebula, Afterburner) and colour, they reflect the way in which mass objects, especially vehicles, become particularised through the post-purchase labours of their owners. Their glans styling evokes a technology that is sexualised and reproductive, connecting to a continuing strand in Piccinini’s work—the naturalisation of technology. From the wide-eyed infant vehicles of Truck Babies (1999), to the larval motorbikes of ‘Cyclepups’, Piccinini has dipped into the emotionally loaded world of our most intimate machines.  In addition to the brood of ‘Cyclepups’ is Radial (2005), a lone alloy wheel with a strange baroque tumour erupting out of its tyre tread.

In Radial’s swelling polyps and curliques, and in recent videos, Piccinini’s highly detailed surfaces teeter simultaneously on the verge of formlessness.  Her moving image works have imbued globs of texture-mapped digital matter with narrative.  The work When My Baby (When my Baby) (2005) shows a hairy and wrinkled fleshy scape behind which parasites, blisters, or (Piccinini suggests) the imagined tiny robots of nanotechnology, skitter about.  The blobs move under the skin, the whole form changing and shifting until finally the folds and wrinkles arrange themselves into a grotesque face that smiles gently and blinks before receding once more into seemingly random movement. The soundtrack is a spatialised wash of new age chimes, electronic flickerings and bells—electro orchestrations that smooth over the unsettling image.

Like many of Piccinini’s works, When My Baby (When my Baby) could be read as a portrait of another lifeform, of another way of being.  On the other hand, it could be seen as a play on our empathy towards objects with an approximately mammalian floorplan, on our need to make our technological products look back at us, on our wish to see men in the moon and faces on Mars. Like much of her practice, the video engages the reflexive and inescapable anthropomorphism that underpins our vexed relations to the non-human world.

Some things, once done, are not easily undone… Like an egg; once broken, it cannot be unbroken. Once something is created, it is difficult to contain. This stands as much for a work of art as it does for a genetically modified creature. Anyone who thinks that they can maintain control of the things that they create is fooling themselves. Whether it is genetically modified canola, the cane toad or a work on the secondary market, once the thing leaves our hands all we can do is watch.
Artist’s statement, 2005

The artists’ creatures and creations in the exhibition ‘In Another Life’ are safe inside the gallery walls, engaging an audience schooled in the suspension of disbelief.  They have their own context—in relation to one another, and in their buffed and upholstered environments.  But removed from those parentheses, in an other life, what stories can they tell?

Piccinini has had a particularly vivid experience of the ways in which artworks escape the control of their makers.  In April 2005, an image of one of the animal figures in her sculpture Leather Landscape (2003), exhibited in that year’s Venice Biennale, was posted on a Sudanese Arabic-language website. The image illustrated a news item about a girl from Oman who was turned into a beast by Allah after hurling the Koran to the ground during an argument with her mother.  The image and its accompanying cautionary tale were repeated in newspapers, schools and mosques and on Islamic message boards.  Piccinini’s website traffic rose exponentially as she struggled to clarify the origins of her expropriated image and explain the hoax.

While the humour and nuance of her invented world was lost in the glare of mass media and the confused exchanges of online bulletin boards, the story traces the same fears about the boundaries between human and non-human, mediated in this case not by genetic science, but by a punishing God.

Unicorns and mermaids may have retreated finally into the realm of the mythological, but Piccinini’s artwork exists in a world of vastly disparate realities, of stem cell research and belief in supernatural transformations. Religious fundamentalists are hard at work to roll back centuries of Darwinism, but now they do it on the internet. The unraveling of the human genome has revealed our intertwining with the world surrounding us, our genetic similarities to monkeys and houseflies, but we haven’t uncovered any new spiritual or intellectual resources to resolve the moral and social questions opened up by these discoveries.

Piccinini engages these contradictions of the contemporary world. Drawing on a wealth of esoteric knowledge, from the subcultural to the high tech, she creates new fictions and altered truths, works that are far more than the sum of their inferences.

From the exhibition catalogue ‘Patricia Piccinini: In Another Life’, 48pp, the City Gallery Wellington, 2006.