ASSUMPTIONS OF THE NATURAL
Piccinini invites us to reimagine the natural world of living organisms and ecosystems where natural and artificial ambiguity thrives. Her art occupies a surreal expanse where science and sentiment converge in new cultural mythologies and narratives. It’s a trajectory that exists not beyond our comprehension. Piccinini’s art is compelling and confronting because it is very much of our time.
Advancements in biotechnology are challenging our fundamental assumptions of the natural world and what constitutes nature when the distinction between artificial and natural becomes unclear. While it may be hard to fathom, artificial is the new nature. Genetically manipulated, engineered, edited, modified, tweaked, biohacked living organisms are indeed living organisms. Tissue and stem cell technologies are teasing a world of new possibilities and medical cures. Growing human cells and tissues, say an ear, on apples for regenerative medicine is a work in progress. Bespoke human replacement organs grown in pigs and harvested for transplant are no longer fanciful sci-fi tangents; this concept is becoming increasingly conceivable. Although technically and ethically we are still a long way off, preliminary efforts have seen human stem cells contribute to the development of tissues in pig embryos. We are left wondering how far is too far. What happens if human cells grow beyond the targeted organs and integrate into the host animal’s brain or reproductive system? These undesirable what-if scenarios are quite frightful to imagine. What would be the societal implications? We tend to rely on science to provide a framework for understanding our rapidly changing world and to step in to “save the day” when required. Nevertheless, science is not infallible and the consequences are unforeseeable. The bioethics is a minefield of moral dilemmas and malleable interpretations emotive and objective. While humankind appears to be quite adept at forcing the hand of evolution we need to make sure our ethics game is up to speed and that we are prepared to accept all outcomes.
Piccinini’s art encourages discourse on the science, ethics and humanity of our times. There is no opposition to progress or passing moral judgment in her work; nevertheless, it raises many difficult but pertinent questions to complex issues. This is a thread on which she explores ensuing mythologies, narratives and relationship dynamics that could emerge. Her ideas unfold across a range of mediums: sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installations. The chimeras she presents are not bound by mythical fire breathing lion-goat hybrid monstrosities with tails that end in a serpent’s head. Her awe-inspiring creatures, hyperrealistic human-animal hybrids, amorphous organisms, and technology hacks are uncomfortably close to home. These biohacked entities appear humanized. They feature a patchwork of humanesque features and limbs with those that are obviously not. The casual juxtaposition is quite jarring. Ripples and contortions of skin merge with said features and limbs, orifices, welts, bulges, hair, and amorphous organisms to create diverse body forms, constellations, and functions that are truly wondrous.
These entities are at the same time intriguing and repulsive, beautiful and grotesque, oddly familiar and yet oh so surreal. Curious as they may be, Piccinini’s mythical hybrids are deserving of dignity and are treated tenderly in her art with a humane response. The empathic relationships they share with their human peers remind us that science is often secondary to the narratives that follow.
Patricia, what themes or ideas are fundamental to your art? And what informs these ideas?
My practice is focused on bodies and relationships: the relationships between people and other creatures, between people and our bodies, between creatures and the environment, between the artificial and the natural. I am particularly interested in the way that the everyday realities of the world around us change these relations. Perhaps because of this, many have looked at my practice in terms of science and technology, however, for me it is just as informed by Surrealism and mythology. My work aims to shift the way that people look at the world around them, and question their assumptions about the relationships they have with the world. I am especially interested in things that fall outside of our traditional ideas of normal or beautiful, or that step across the boundaries that we erect between things. How does contemporary technology and culture change our understanding of what it means to be human. What is our relationship with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. While ethics are central, my approach is always ambiguous and questioning rather than moralistic and didactic. Ideas rather than methods are central to they way I work, although drawing plays a central generative role in everything I do. I work with whatever mediums seem best suited to evoking the sorts of thoughts and emotions I am interested in playing with. I work across many media – sculpture, installation, photography, video, drawing – from intimate drawings to gigantic public sculptures such as “The Skywhale”.
Similar to the biotechnology you reference, your work challenges us to redefine or reimagine nature and what constitutes natural, when artificial (biological enhancement, modifications, engineering, manipulation, and hacking) is the new nature. Can you talk about how these ideas manifest in your art? And the role science plays in general?
I am interested in science because it is the fundamental narrative for modern life. Obviously, it is very real and has very real impacts on our life but it also provides the mythic structure for contemporary life. By this I mean, it is the story we turn to to explain the way the world works, whether we really understand it or not, we just believe it. So for me it is not just about talking about science per se, it is about looking at what sorts of narratives it allows us to generate, and how those new narratives feed back on how we look at the world around us.
Bioethics is very much a topical issue. It is one fraught with moral dilemmas, malleable interpretations, and it can be somewhat of a slippery slope. Your work appears to embrace the experimental and unpredictable, desirable and undesirable outcomes of such practices. Would you say your art is a precautionary tale or a celebration of new life/possibilities?
It is definitely both. There is not true/false, good/bad “answer” to something as huge as science. It is about negotiating the complexities of individual possibilities as they arise. Also, I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just a confused bystander hoping to have a conversation with the people around me. I don't have answers, just questions. However, what I can say for sure is that I am a huge fan of diversity. So anything that expands our world and our ideas is interesting to me.
There appears to be a thread throughout your work that looks at the impact of human intervention on living organisms and natural ecosystems. What are our responsibilities to the natural world we impact and alter?
I think when we create anything we become a parent, and as a parent we have a responsibility to care for what we have created, and to deal the consequences of that creation. We can’t just abandon something that doesn’t do what we want it to, or that doesn’t look cute to us. So we need to think very carefully about what we do, and not just do things because we can. However, by the same token we can’t just create things to serve us.
How do you achieve this level of hyperrealism in your sculpture? And why does hyperrealism best convey your meaning?
Hyperrealism is actually just one mode that I employ in my practice. I do drawings and make videos as well as sculptures and installations that involve found objects or bronze or whatever. I am not really interested in hyperrealism as an idea or a process, however it is a useful technique to create objects that seem to exist in this world, when they clearly do not. They can create a very particular empathy with the viewer and that is interesting to me. I am most interested in using this technique when it plays against the traditional obsession with verisimilitude that underlies most hyperrealism; like when I can create something that is so clearly not real. My favourites are the hair paintings where we create essentially two-dimensional images out of hair. They are almost a contradiction insofar as that they are so natural looking but so completely contrived.
Why do children feature prominently in your art?
For me children embody a number of the key ideas in my work. Obviously children directly express the idea of genetics – both natural and artificial – but beyond that they also imply the responsibilities that a creator has to their creations. The innocence and vulnerability of children is powerfully emotive and evokes empathy – their presence softens the hardness of some of the more difficult ideas. The children in my works are young enough to accept the strangeness and difference of my world without difficulty, and they hint at the speed at which the extraordinary becomes commonplace in contemporary society. For me, the clear emotional bonds that connect the children and the creatures in my work are simultaneously optimistic and disturbing. Their closeness is both moving and unsettling.
At times, science seems secondary to the emotional narratives at play between your chimera and their human peers – be it love and adoration, ease and intimacy, the air of normality, and even at times overtures of servitude. Can you talk about these narratives and their role in your work and the empathy they evoke?
I would say that is a very good observation about the work, and in fact on the whole I’m more interested in the emotional implications than the science. This is largely because I think all decisions are essentially emotional. We claim to be rational beings but everything point to the opposite. Look at the rise of behavioural economics, which shows us that unspoken emotion is totally key to all our judgements. My interest in medical technology began with thinking about how hard it is to explain ethics to a mother who just wants to heal her child. She doesn’t care about ethics and how can you blame her? Life is not simple or easily legislated so we cannot leave the emotions out of these things.
Earlier this year biologists succeeded in growing human stem cells in pig embryos, and while we are still a long way off growing replacement organs in pigs this advancement takes the idea out of the sci-fi arena and makes it conceivable. Your piece “The Young Family” (2002) has never been so pertinent. Can you talk about this piece, the science, the ethics, and the reactions to it?
It is pretty amazing to see how this idea has advanced in the 15 years since I made that work. It has always been my contention that I make work about the present and not some distant future. This stuff is happening way faster than we think, and with CRSPR it is about to go into overdrive. In regards to the “The Young Family”, it’s important to remember that I’m not pessimistic about developments in biotechnology. We are living in a great time with a lot of opportunities, but opportunities don’t always turn out for the best. I just think we should discuss the full implications of these opportunities.
So if we look at “The Young Family” we see a mother creature with her babies. Her facial expression is very thoughtful. I imagine this creature to be bred for organ transplants. At the moment we are trying to do such a thing with pigs, so I gave her some pig-like features. That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her. Yet she has children of her own that she nurtures and loves. That is a side effect beyond our control, as there will always be. That is what makes the question of breeding animals purely for organ-transfer so difficult to answer. On one hand we need organs to help people in need, on the other hand we are looking at an animal that wants to exist for the sake of itself. I can’t help but feel an enormous empathy for this creature. However, to be very honest, if it would save the life of one of my children, I would be willing to take one of these organs. I know it is probably not ethically right but sometimes honesty, emotions, empathy and ethics don’t always line up.
I’m curious about the ideas behind the automotive customizations/object(bio)hacking such as in works like “Embryo” (2016) and “Joined Figure” (2016)?
Those works are quite different, I think. “Embryo” is one of a number of works I have created over the past 20 years that look at the aesthetic of automotive culture and the increasing naturalisation of machines. In some ways they are the other side of the coin of the chimeras. The latter is about a technologicalised nature, and the automotive works imagine a naturalised technology. In some ways, the automotive works are metaphors for the ideas that the other works discuss. They suggest the idea of a wilderness of technology, where machines have their own lives and self-determination.
“Joined Figure” is a little different. I have made a few works like this one, and for me these works are a little more difficult to pin down. They come from my drawing practice and are a bit more instinctual.
Can you tell us about your pieces in the group exhibition mad love at Arndt Art Agency here in Berlin?
One work is the “Osculating Curve”, which is in a similar mode to “Joined Figure”. It represents the most impossible zone of my practice. Exploring my interest in Surrealism, it speaks for my attempts to express fecundity, sexuality and desire in ways that escape from the inherent banality of patriarchal visual culture. How can we talk about sex or beauty without descending into pornographic titillation? On one level, this is a work that expresses and celebrates pregnancy. On another level it is an extension of the more unconscious aspects of my drawing practice, which is where all my works begin.
On a formal level I am interested in using hyperrealistic sculpting techniques in the same way that the Surrealists used painting or photography: to show things that exist in the psychic rather than the real world. In this way, this work subverts hyperrealism’s association with veracity and verisimilitude, conflating realism and the uncanny in a way that is very much like drawing.
The other work is quite different, although similarly optimistic. “Unfurled” is a work that attempts to imagine a different sort of relationship between people and nature, one that is more equitable and with a more shared outlook. I make no apology for the impossible naivety of such optimism. Sometimes you have to make a work that shows how the world might be rather than how it is. However, I am also aware that the world isn’t like that and wonder why. That’s the difference between naivety and optimism, I suppose. There are several ways of looking at the work that come from this paradox. You can see two predators (owl and human) or two endangered species (owl and Amazonian girl) or simply two creatures looking towards the same point.
Words / Amber Grünhäuser
Art / courtesy of Patricia Piccinini