Is it human or animal? Is it natural or artificial? Is it repulsive or is it cute and sweet? These are some of the contrasting thoughts that arise when viewing Patricia Piccinini’s works. Piccinini makes sculptures, drawings, videos, and installations that draw on our primeval senses and destabilize our perception of reality. A storyteller, the Australian artist seeks to question our understanding of being human and to explore its transformation and evolution through scientific and technological innovations.
The Promising Career of Patricia Piccinini
Patricia Piccinini’s oeuvre wonders at the idea of whether we are ready to accept what we create as a result of progress, prompting questions about ethics while staying ambiguous and open to different interpretations. Piccinini’s practice revolves around the body (human, animal, artificial, and hybrid) and relationships between humanity, nature, and the artificial.
In 2003, her exhibition We Are Family for the Australian Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale marked a turning point in her career, launching her on the global stage.
The Art Newspaper named her major survey ComCiência at CCBB (Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil) as the most popular art exhibition of 2016. The exhibition was organized in São Paulo, Brasília, Rio De Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte in Brazil. QAGOMA in Brisbane held her largest retrospective to date called Curious Affection in 2018, with some of her most significant works from the past 20 years, alongside immersive multisensory installations, including Pneutopia, a large-scale inflatable sculpture specially conceived for the Gallery.
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During 2023 Patricia had three major solo shows including Metamorphosis at Kunsthal Rotterdam, We Are Connected at Singapore’s Art Science Museum, and HOPE at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong. The artist has also installed solo exhibitions in non-traditional spaces, such as The Shadows Calling at Detached (Hobart) in 2015, where Piccinini’s sculptures appeared next to Peter Hennessy’s works as strange forces reclaiming the dark, gritty spaces in the basement of The Old Mercury Building (TOMB). Tapping into the familiar and domestic, Curious Imaginings for the 2018 Vancouver Biennale saw some of the rooms at the city’s Patricia Hotel turn into evocative everyday scenes for her works. With A Miracle Constantly Repeated (2021) the Flinders Street Station Ballroom in Melbourne opened to the public for the first time in decades.
Love at Second Sight
Marcello Dantas, the curator of ComCiência, used the expression love at second sight when describing the feelings one might encounter upon seeing Piccinini’s works for the first time. These bizarre works might at first instigate a feeling of revulsion or horror, but soon after, a feeling of empathy, compassion, and even tenderness will inevitably arise. One might even come to feel sadness for some of her creatures, as they seem to call for our care and love.
Piccinini’s works are the offspring of a fervent imagination fed by science, philosophy, and ultimately, human emotions. They play on the paradoxes of human existence and its coexistence with the natural world as well as the manmade artificial and digital.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often quoted as one of the most important inspirations by Piccinini, whose work The Couple (2018) is a modern take on the Victorian writer’s masterpiece. Here, the monster is given the female companion he desires and they are left to live their own life. He lies in the tender embrace of his beloved, protected. The monstrosity one might expect of him is not there; he’s just a creature in need of affection and care. As is The Foundling (2008), a hybrid baby who with her big, dark eyes, begs to be picked up and nursed. Even though she has monkey-like features and big floppy rabbit-like ears under her little beanie, she can’t but conquer everyone’s heart—perhaps not at first, but surely at second sight.
Between Realism, Surrealism, and Mythology
Piccinini’s hyperrealist works resemble real creatures, with recognizable features with bodies made of flesh, skin, and hair. The materials she uses are disparate, from artificial ones like silicone, fiberglass, nylon, and plastic to natural ones like human hair, which is one of her favorite materials to use. She combines them into new forms with surfaces, textures, and patterns mimicking skin, body hair, wrinkles, and fleshy protuberances, as well as shiny metallic surfaces and oozing substances. Often we see people around her as subjects in her work, like her children or her husband, but they are merely models.
Her works take shape after a complex process of research, and an in-depth study of many sources of inspiration such as surrealism and mythology. The artist calls her works chimeras, from the Greek mythological beast that was part lion, goat, and snake. Her chimeras are works of fiction that combine parts of various animals as well as human features and unidentified organic forms. The creatures are wildly imaginative, dazzling, and surreal. Surrealism in fact is one of the main sources of inspiration to Piccinini, as she identifies with its boundary-breaking thought and defiance of existing modes of representation.
Surrealism was about contemporary culture and technology, artists used new emerging technologies like photography and film. They were also influenced by innovative scientists and thinkers of the time, such as Freud and his theories about the human psyche. Among her biggest inspirations, she cites French Surrealist Dora Maar (1907–97) and her experimental photographs of mythical animal figures, and British-Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) who created dreamlike visions of imaginary beings, and inspired the latest edition of the Venice Biennale in 2022.
The Welcome Guest (2011) creates a surrealist fairytale-like atmosphere, where an otherworldly creature is seen in a sweet encounter with a human child. The latter appears elated, welcoming the unexpected guest with a happy smile full of wonder, with that openheartedness and innocence only a child is capable of. The creature is a hybrid being that at first glance looks dangerous and alien, ready to pounce on its prey with its giant claws. What happens in the scene instead is a narrative of innocence, affection, care, and acceptance.
Biotechnology, Transgenics and Posthumanism
Piccinini’s oeuvre draws on notions of science and philosophy, reflecting on modern cultural and social theories as well as present-day technological and scientific discoveries. There are reflections on the transgenic experiments that are possible through new biotechnological advancements, as well as expressions of posthuman theories. The Anthropocene is the backdrop against which these events unfold and her creatures come to life—an era dominated by humankind and its exploitative destruction of the planet. There are influences coming from the posthuman theories of Donna Haraway, who said that we have never been human and that we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism, as well as philosopher Rosi Braidotti, for whom the body is a social construct. Posthumanism reflects on humanity and responds to the anthropocentrism of 21st century thought, to de-centre man from the narrative and include other natural and artificial variables.
This goes hand in hand with the changes to the human body and its condition made possible now or in the foreseeable future by scientific and technological discoveries, such as in the fields of biotechnology and transgenics, like CRISPR or gene-editing, for example. Such research and developments are controversial and might seem threatening, but they also open up new possibilities to cure diseases and make life better. But as research seeks to find ways to offer lifelines for humans, it also endangers the lives of other species. At the same time, we might end up with chimeras or hybrid creatures that we will have to learn to live with. But will we? These are all questions that Piccinini addresses through her work.
The Young Family (2002), which debuted at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, is a shocking reminder that prompts reflection on the ethical implications of human agency. A hybrid human-pig mother lies on her side with her babies on what looks like a laboratory table. She looks exhausted, her eyes belie a mixture of love for her offspring and sadness for their unknown destiny. With this work, Piccinini encourages us to think about how we treat other animals and how we understand nature.
The Carrier (2012) is another example of what we might create to serve us and make our lives easier. A chimeric human-bear creature carries an elderly woman on his back. The work represents a paradox between the great power of the hybrid and the physical inferiority of the human. Does the creature help the woman because he wants to, or because he has to? Is there a hierarchy? Although these questions persist, what transpires from the work is the undeniable connection between the two, as their gentle expressive faces and gazes both turn in the same direction.
Piccinini also brings attention to the vulnerability of endangered species in No Fear of Depths (2019), where a representation of the artist’s daughter Roxy as a child is being held by a humpback dolphin in a motherly embrace. The species leads a complex family life, and the artist points to their similarity to us.
Patricia Piccinini and A Curious Kind of Affection
Patricia Piccinini’s work is about relationships and empathy. The artist creates this tension between the grotesquely alien and the sweetly lovable. We might want to look away, but we can’t help but keep on looking at her characters. As we approach them and as we get closer, we get lost in an emotional vortex of empathy and tenderness. There is maternal love and care, there is lovers’ affection, and there is an innocent and pure emotional connection. There is beauty in every living being, and the artist points us in the right direction, making us reflect on life—our own and that of others.
The Comforter (2010) is a beautiful reminder of how wonderful life and connection are. A young girl, herself also a hybrid being, holds what looks like organic matter. She holds it like a baby, just like a big sister would hold her little sibling to protect her. She comforts her and lets her know she is not alone. The Long Awaited (2008) is a portrait of intimacy and love, the love between a grandmother figure and a boy. The artist sees this depiction of love as a strong definition of love, one in which you allow someone to love you. Here, the grandmother lets the boy nurture her. The grotesque in the scene is present but it is overcome by real beauty, defined by the expression of real love. On another level, the work clearly speaks to our relationship to non-human beings.
The Field (2018) features a field of organ-like flowers growing from above and below, reminiscent of what might be a future organ farm. The Bond (2016) represents a human mother holding a baby human-animal chimera, whose back also shows the pattern of a shoe footprint—a sign of a mixture of the natural and the synthetic. The woman is completely engrossed in a motherly act of tenderness and care, as the baby looks protected and content in her embrace. The work resonates with our parental nature. It epitomizes the meaning of acceptance, of what we create: like a mother, we should become able to nurture and care for those who are Other because of us.
Depicting a special relationship, the video work We Travel Together (2021) is a film about hope. A young woman meets an artificial creature, with an unknown history and provenance, and they form a bond that gives new life to the environment. Eventually, something more extraordinary happens; she gives up what she has really come to love, as she realizes that for its own benefit, she has to let the creature go into the wild and live its life. What we are left with is a feeling of empathy, tenderness, and hope for a better future.