Amid all of the cynicism, snark, satire, and dark irony that pervades this 21st century culture, there is an unspeakable, insatiable need for the wondrous, the fantastic, the doorway into the mythic imagination. We sometimes forget the cost of that journey—how much it takes to truly grapple with alternative landscapes, creatures, or cultures that uncannily tap into the our anxieties. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Arctic’s sea ice is at its lowest level since we began recording its measurements, and we are constantly trying to correct the accidental eco-disasters caused by the introduction of non-native plants and animals while so many species dangle precariously on the edge of distinction. That sentence alone might have already triggered the skeptic force field which allows you to reside safely in the “we’re completely fucked” or “science will save us” camp, respectively. The truly wondrous and grotesque won’t quite let us get away with either binary, as evidenced by the sculptures of Patricia Piccinini. An Australian artist, Piccinini’s works consistently invite us to rework and re-imagine our ever evolving and yet oddly static relationship with science and nature. Only a writhing amalgamation of the creepy, adorable, and strange can smash those clichéd, habitual boundaries and demand a new kind of reflective, interactive process.
For instance, in her series Aloft, a bulging egg sac made of woven hair hangs over the gallery space. Despite its obvious threat, a small child’s face peeping through the web-like strands that hold the sac in place momentarily confounds us. Is this but the newest way to hatch humans in a more natural environment? Another viewpoint shows that the child is crawling over giant grubs—they are the true children of this habitat, but like Alice, the child’s curiosity demanded that he experience this fantastic nature hands on. We, however, are left as observers, either thankful for that physical distance from such strangeness, or secretly envious of the child who gets to playfully interact with baby monstrosities. The overhanging feature doesn’t quite let the viewer feel completely protected, and the emotional and psychological gaps that Piccinini’s work collapses ask daunting questions of its audience: Who is the invader here—the child, or the giant egg sac with its massive offspring? And what is the price of that interaction? Will the boy return to his family with some strange disease, or perhaps he has infected the newborns? Maybe even the scent of humanness will ward off the parent, who might be lurking in the shadows.
The Young Family, which Piccinini created for the 50th Venice Biennale, shows a creature that defies our vocabulary even as her gaze demands that we respect her as something more than just an animal. “Monster” might be the only word that can hold our apprehension of her, since monsters seem to hold a degree of sentience that we might not give the animal kingdom. Piccinini states that “the idea behind this piece is that here is a creature which has been bred to provide replacement organs for humans, an idea that springs from the very real prospect of doing so using genetically modified pigs.” While the creature is certainly pig-like, instead of the customary hooves, it has large, man-like hands and hairy forearms. Looking at them, we cannot think “pig” or even “woman.” Yet both of those words almost fit when regarding the brood suckling at her nipples. They barely resemble piglets with their little hand-feet that curl so playfully, ready to wrap around any extended finger the way babies are apt to do. Piccinini then pulls the grotesque, rhetorical move when she asks, “How would you feel if within her or her offspring grew the heart that your baby daughter needed to live? If it came down to a choice between her life or my son’s it would not be a difficult decision for me to make” (Orgaz and Piccinini). The undeniable truth of that statement indicts us—we love nature and honor it, but use it as well, and not without consequences.
In the Nature’s Little Helpers series, Piccinini’s creatures are meant to nurture and protect the endangered species of Australia. They are watchful, somewhat comical and sometimes aggressive, but always on the cusp of what might be real. Her work Undivided touches upon the abject, with its mother figure affectionately cuddling a sleeping child, its snout nuzzling the boy’s neck. Such peaceful repose is instantly disturbed by the sight of the bulges in the creature’s back, which hosts its young in different stages of development. Most people cannot handle naked orifices so exposed, especially ones that contain nameless, growing entities. That disgust is undercut by the developing baby poking out in the middle mound and the fully furry animal residing half in/half out of the mother’s mother. There’s something rather extraordinary and uncanny about the top bulges—they might even resemble a pair of breasts with inverted nipples, divided by an exoskeletal-like spine. They are intriguing, unnerving, and temporarily jar us from the all-consuming image of breast-as-object while something strange grows within them. But is that being the same creature as the mother? We can’t be sure, for she is featured as The Surrogate in the same series, and Piccinini designed these creatures to protect the endangered. Given that its arms are also lovingly wrapped around a human child, might that serve to indict that we, too, are at risk if we continue on a trajectory of technological innovation without some kind of deep, ethical inquiry?
Piccinini reminds us that “it is very seductive to think that we could find a simple technological solution to complex ecological problems such as extinction. It is far more exciting to talk about genetic engineering than to designate a large area of habitat/real estate as national park so that dozens or even hundreds of native species might be given a better chance of survival.” I believe that the intent of these sculptures is to help us reframe the rhetorical lens with which we even try to draw boundaries around “nature.” We like our lines clean and clear cut (save the whales, protect the panda), but the realm of bioethics and sustainability is messier than simply passing on old-worn maxims. We must start reinventing language to hold the ambiguous, ambivalent tensions that are birthed through our technological innovations.
Piccinini’s work offers no easy solutions to these conundrums; the grotesque never does. Its only function is to playfully and somewhat terrifyingly push the boundaries to the point where our old paradigms are deemed worthless. G.K. Chesterton argued that “energy and joy are the father and mother of the grotesque” (qtd in Harpham, 8). Never darkness, never horror. That energy and joy lie at the core of these sculptures, and one might add, love. In The Long Awaited child and creature seem to sleep peacefully, with the child’s arm seeming to almost cradle the old, wizened head. Looking at its tail we might guess the creature to be aquatic, but the ears are distinctly human, as is the hair and the sagging breasts. Has it been bred, like the mother in The Young Family, to give up its life for the child? Or was it a hybrid we accidentally created through environmental practices like species importation? Whatever the situation, there is no condemnation here, only love and adoration. Perhaps, we must, as one Biblical reference has cautioned, “become like little children” to truly begin envisioning a more redemptive relationship with the natural world? For certainly, it is only in learning how to save that particular kingdom that we will end up saving ourselves.
To see more of Piccinini’s work, please visit her website: http://www.patriciapiccinini.net
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
Orgaz, Laura Fernadex, and Patricia Piccinini. “A Conversation Between Patricia Piccinini and Laura Fernandex Orgaz.” Tender Creatures exhibition catalogue. Artium: ARTIUM of Alava, 2007. Web
Piccinini, Patricia. “Nature’s Little Helpers.” Web.