Patricia Piccinnini : Not Playing God
In response to exhibition ‘Inter-natural’ at Hosfelt Gallery, San Fransisco
Written by Gabriella Sonabend, Published in SculptorVox Issue III, June 2019
I can’t stop thinking about Patricia Piccinini's work. As a curator, artist and art writer I visit over 300 exhibitions a year ranging from major institutional retrospective shows to guerrilla pop-ups in meanwhile spaces. When you look at that much art, the majority of it merges in your mind and forms a globulous mental picture of the zeitgeist. On top of that the instagram world adds another 100 or so exhibitions a day, you can voyeur into studios through virtual space, spy on works in progress and read artist statements until you're nearly blind from screen overdose. It may sound like I’m complaining, but I relish this sensory overload and the insane art bombardment I experience, I would rather live in a world where everyone is striving to be an artist than one where the creative has to hide their work and fears for their life.
The downside of this era of art overload is its almost impossible to say what you’ve seen and further to know whats actually had an impact, however, amongst the chaos when something is truly brilliant it is clearer than ever.
There is a long history of artists making sensationalist work, designed to unnerve, shock, delight and disgust their audience. From Goya to Paul McCarthy, from the Chapman Brothers to Hieronymus Bosch from Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin to Chris Burden and Santiago Sierra - artists have forever been testing audiences, playing god, seeing how far they can go to challenge perceptions of reality, shake us out of our comfort zones and shine light on quiet truths. Paul McCarthy and the Chapman brothers present terrifying dystopian worlds where shit and Mickey Mouse, Hitler and bubblegum all converge in one truly masculine chaotic ejaculation. I see the place for this work and similar male Id driven creative endeavours, however no matter how deeply I study it, to me it always remains facile, a mirror of the indecipherable fiction of politics - speaking of something on the surface but never truly penetrating the complexity of the subject matter - dancing around the difficult questions but not really understanding how to ask them. When and Jake and Dinos give us sculptures of children with phalluses as noses, standing alone in school uniforms, looking defiled and rejected I look for the voice of wisdom to offer the counter narrative that actually says something real and finally after seeing Patricia Piccinini’s work in the flesh - I see it.
Patricia, to you I want to say thank you. Thank you, for returning to a narrative that is so ancestral and eternal that it speaks an international truth. Thank you for going deeper when so many are only capable of dealing with the surface, thank you for continuing to ask questions when others just make statements, thank you for whispering whilst others are shouting, thank you for loving when others are just excreting, fighting and giving up.
Patricia Piccinini’s work may be about the future and the way technology is altering our relationship to the human but really it is about the past and the present and the fact that no matter how much we change physically or psychologically we will always create the outsider; we will always punish ourselves and others for our differences; we will always expect people to be like us and be afraid when they are not and we will always when given the time and space learn to shift our perspective and love.
In Andrew Solomon’s testimonial tome ‘Far From The Tree’ he tells countless stories of parents of children whose identities do not reflect their own and their struggles and triumph to learn to love what may be considered other. He eloquently describes two types of identity, the vertical (one passed from parent to child, for example religion) and the horizontal (one shared with a peer group rather than a genetic lineage for example being deaf to hearing parents, or being homosexual to heterosexual parents). The book reflects on the way humans find it easy to embrace non-normative aspects of their children if this is something they share, but are challenged when they display non-normative characteristics which they don't share. However, with time we learn that our children are not meant to be replicas of ourselves and it is for their diversity that we should love deeper not their similarities.
Piccinini represents a world where the human has become other, merged with bovine features, claws, excess fingers and toes, loose hair covered skin, oversized ears - her people are too small or too big, their bodies render them incapable of survival in the world as we know it, they are vulnerable, naked and scared. Seeing the work in the flesh is uncanny in the literal sense. It is familiar and then unfamiliar and then familiar again. It is uncomfortable, you look and want to look away, then you want to look again and look deeper and it feels perverse as if you are a voyeur looking at someone with a crippling disease; but is it not better to look and understand than recoil and ignore? Immediately Piccinini’s work opens a complex emotional landscape which encompasses all human programming and all animal instinct. It feeds into our fears, our ethics, our projections, our guilt, our perversion and our anger. Her work creates a torrent of feelings and questions and opinions which reveal prejudices and empathy and so much more. When I saw Piccinini’s first piece entering the exhibition at Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco my thought process was the following:
What am I looking at? This makes me feel uncomfortable. Do I have a right to feel uncomfortable? Why do I feel threatened by this? What does this tell me about myself? If I look away what am I turning my back on? Is this somehow a reflection about how I see myself? Is this an idea of the future & what humanity will become in light of genetic changes? Is this a presentation of the unspoken self? Am I the outsider? Is this how propaganda turn us agains each other? If we change the human ever so slightly do we feel justified to treat a sentient being as if they are less than human?
and then something else rises up through this maelstrom of questions and feelings
In ‘The Bond’ a morphed child creature is held by a mother, who looks so identifiably human and she holds her child in her arms, clutching her to her heart and her heart beats and they both breath and although they are static the movement around them is palpable. They are alone in a field, in a strange post-apocalyptic landscape and the mother is dressed modestly and the world around her has no colour and all that matters and all that exists is the love she has for this child who is so other and who needs her protection. And this child is the future, and it is not the future we expected and it is not the future that we know, but we are responsible for the way the planet has shifted and we are a new species, in day 1 of our lives in comparison to the age of the earth and the ancient reptilian beasts that walk its surface. We are just a stage in human evolution and this is another stage.
We know the mother because she looks like us and the child is something new and it terrifies us because the child is a symbol that the bodies we have learned to know and love are transient, our shells will shift and we cannot change that, we can only love what is to come.
This is the fundamental difference between the mother and the father (the battles Virginia Woolf articulated so perfectly in To The Lighthouse) because the male artist, the Chapman Brothers and Paul McCarthy put their stamp on the world, and their work says ‘Look at me, remember me - I am provocation and chaos and noise’ whereas Piccinini says ‘look at yourself, you are emotion, you are change, you are impermanent, but do not be afraid of what is to come because there is beauty in change, and their is beauty in letting go and making space for the new.”
Piccinini’s work may be interpreted as fearful or as a warning, but I do not see it that way. I read her as I read the actions of a mother who is so compelled by her love that she sees only the future in the eyes of her child and does not see the disfigurement. Piccinini does not create a hierarchy, she does not say this is better than that, she just says - everything that exists, exists and if something exists we must see it and we must allow it the space to inhabit this world as another being.
In ‘Dispossession: The Performative in the Political’, Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou make a compelling argument that the disabled body represents a form of protest. In a world designed for the conventional proportional human walking on two legs with two arms and digits and ears and eyes and noses, it is not a surprise that it is such a challenge to be physically different. Our infrastructure is designed for the norm, every element of our built environment catering for one idea of a what a body is. Our attempt to make cities wheelchair accessible I often feel is a lazy charade because in truth to cater for everyone we would have to rethink everything and Piccinini reinforces this idea. She reminds us that whilst we congratulate ourselves on our political correctness and new-age liberalism, there are invisible populations of people who are not spoken for, who do not have appropriate infrastructure and as our environment shifts and our bodies change and the oceans rise we may find humanity morphing to the point that the world we have built cannot support lifeforms to come.
This idea could also be explored in reverse. In Australia the Aborigines were not considered citizens until 1967. Until that point the colonialists labelled them as flora & fauna, denying their humanity and therefore justifying treating the populous of the world’s most ancient culture as inhuman and disposable by proxy. Considering the work through this historic lens (and indeed this method of dehumanising cultures has been used internationally by those with vested interests in natural resources of ‘new’ countries and for many other exploitative endeavours) Piccinini’s work can be read as a metaphor for how humans create differences in order to gain control.
In ‘The Couple’ a couple lie embracing on a camp bed in a military tent. The piece is an outpost, separated from space & time. We read from the semiotics of the environment that this couple exist in a world where they are outsiders or perhaps where they are the only insiders - a place where no one else exists, where they are the sole survivors. The female lies on her back and looks at the ceiling, she is deeply pensive, calmly planning her next move, so carefully thinking and breathing in a way which will not disturb her partner’s deep sleep. He is beside her and nestled into her, dreaming, breathing, safe under her protection. In the tent are objects we associate with survival and searching for life, plates, cooking utensils and a radio. In a world where these two are the only beings left, what remains in the radio waves?
The Couple portrays the depths of intimacy but it also shows the nuances of relationships. The female seems both scared but also determined, she will sacrifice her own sleep for his and allow him to feel safe when she does not. She is at once the mother, the lover, the friend and he is husband and the child. Their fears are our fears, their survival is our survival so it doesn't matter that they are other because their intimacy is exactly that of the viewers.
In presenting an uncanny mirror of the world Piccinini gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationships, their contradictions, the sacrifices we make for those we love, the pain and fear we hide and the joy we find in small interactions with others. Her work speaks of everyday life, it hints at complex political contexts, it offer a wealth of thought-avenues to explore with each coaxing us towards a clearer understanding of the world we live in.