Australian artist Patricia Piccinini's silicone rendered mutants are on display at Haunch of Venison in New York. Piccinini, in her mid-40's, is warm and open when we meet, and offers to lead me through her show describing the myriad creatures that populate her post-human world.
The first installation in the gallery titled, The Observer, is of a child tipped over a stack of Ikea chairs curving in a centipede-like spine.
"We've created this precarious environment, an ecology for our children built of these mass produced goods...and we've placed our children in this space, and they are just observing," says Piccinini. Though the child is not in immediate danger the work seems to ponder the possibilities of the outcome. "It's talking about balances," suggests Piccinini.
Her silicone and fibre-glass creations have human hair on their painted skin-like veneers, punched in one at a time by hand. To create life-like creatures with blushed skin tones that give them the verisimilitude of real skin, she employs a team of eight specialized apprentices at her studio in Melbourne.
"The germ for Cascade," she says, showing me a work hanging on the wall "came from me being pissed off with images of women where they are sexualized - but in a homogenous way." The sexualization of women, she felt, rarely encompassed their fertility or fecundity. In this piece the hummingbird appears to be pollinating the growth of hair flowering at the women's pudenda. "It's pulling at this - symbol for fertility, [it is about] lushness and beauty," says Piccinini, describing it as a metaphor for the weaving and embroidery traditionally associated with women.
"Patricia Piccinini Cascade 2010 - silicone, fibreglass, human hair"
So far the show is grounded in the real, but the rest takes us into the fantastic possibility of creatures formed from an alchemical blend of nature and technology. Describing a litter of three transgenic babies (Litter, a play on 'garbage'), she remarks, "Here, this nature has become technologized. These are all natural forms. There are canine, simian and human forms in here, but put together in a technological way to make a new creature."
In The Stags we see a couple of dueling Vespa scooters (skilfully molded by an automotive modeler) transmogrified into deers: machines behaving as animals. Here Piccinini portends the naturalization of technology. "Same idea but flipped. Same world and the relationship to technology but different sides," says Piccinini.
"Machines are taking over a lot of responsibilities - my children are playing a lot more with computers than trees. This is an idea that they could be a natural force - and that they are fighting and autonomous scares us; something we can't control might not be so positive."
To support this extrapolation into the future, Piccinini offers that we are already disassembling what it means to be human, "My computer has a personality; I can talk to my car."
I tell her I feel less akin to these magical stags than the babies: They are more machine than nature. Piccinini explores our sense of empathy and tests the degree to which we can relate to the 'other,' by betraying our innate tribal, familial instincts that bind us to our own race, colour, species. The vulnerability of children and the device of using anthropomorphized creatures, push at our boundaries of acceptance of things that appear alien.
Even as the artworks probe the limits of our most primitive ethnocentric biases, they affirm our place on the planet as the dominant species - having the power to discriminate over other life forms. Piccinini seems to be laying a moral path for our responsibility towards our medical creations. And yet, we are unable to even ensure the existence of creatures that already exist on the planet, so this scenario seems to me rather a distant future. "You can't talk about nature today unless you talk about extinction," she says about the accelerating pace of change, "that wouldn't have happened thirty years ago - this is a recent thing."
There are a lot of children depicted in the show, and she uses them as a device to elicit emotion. I ask if she is inspired by children's stories.
"I have children now, and have renewed respect for Dr. Seuss," she says. "There are children in my work because they have no prejudice and they bring out the best in us. Why would you change nature/have artificial nature - I make these creatures because I want people to engage with them, empathize with them, pick them up."
Indeed her creatures appear monstrous but cuddlesome. Monster, she reminds me is a medical term. Teratology is the study of monsters. "I don't want to shock people because that stops them from thinking." When we reference the Chapman Brothers in conversation, and suggest that her work is more 'feminine,' she says, "I love them, but I don't want my work to be sensational. I want my work to be loved and embraced. I feel therefore I think."
In The Comforter, a hirsute woman (an actual genetic condition that led to the bearded lady once popular in freak-shows and French courts), cradles an eyeless creature conceived of as an udder with a large mouth. The mouth is needy, but also a sensuous organ of expression. In this, the maternal instinct of the 'woman' is celebrated without prejudice. The woman loves this grotesque creature because it is her own.
In Balasana - the Sanskrit name for the yogic child pose, a little girl lies on a Turkish carpet, with a taxidermied albino wallaby - they die quickly because they get sunburned, I am told. "This work is about my desire or fantasy for a relationship with nature that is so intimate. In the child's pose, you can have someone lie on your back and do it the other way." The relationship is intuitive, connecting the two in symbiosis.
"Patricia Piccinini Bottom Feeder 2009 - silicone, fiberglass, fox fur"
Bottom Feeder, pictured above, is a most pathetic looking creature with a rear-end that mimics a face of Buddha-like benevolence, a device often used as a decoy against predators, in this case a disarming tactic adapted against humans to give them pause for thought or at least evoke a smile...
The Strength of One Arm is based on a dugong - (a fork-tailed manatee) that sailors, she tells me, used to mistake as mermaids. And here the creature is doing acrobatics on an Ibex. "If it was an adult - we might think of him as a show-off. We've always wanted animals to perform for us. It makes us feel a little self conscious." Questioning the attributes of what it means to be human, here the artist probes the boundaries of what we find sensual.
Movie productions have asked to license her creatures, but she says she is wary as they underestimate the ability of the viewer to take on complex ideas. Patricia Piccinini feels an attachment to her creations, they are her cherished off-springs after all, "My work needs to have a home where it is really loved. I do want to know where they all go."
Patricia Piccinini, 'Not As We Know It,' on view till October 30, 2010 Haunch of Venison, New York, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10020
All images above courtesy of Haunch of Venison and/or artist where noted.
Text: Kiša Lala