Australia-based artist Patricia Piccinini works with a wide range of media, including sculpture, video, drawing, installation and digital prints. But her subject — the connection between people and other animals — is constant. Piccinini transforms the essence of otherness into stunningly hyperrealist creations that are alien yet grounded in utterly recognizable forms. The disquieting results both challenge and comfort viewers, who cannot help but see themselves in her empathetic figures.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, April 14, Piccinini will appear with curator Mark Scala at the Frist Center to discuss her work, including the three sculptures and one video work featured in the Frist's current exhibition Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination. She spoke with the Scene from her home in Australia about her work, her viewpoints and her collaborative process.
This work is really exciting, and unlike anything shown before in Nashville. How did Mark Scala select you for the show?
Mark is a very thoughtful and thorough curator. He started work on this exhibition four or five years ago, and he went all over the world researching for it. He was in Sydney years ago, and he saw my work in a show there. That's how I met him.
You must send your work all over the world, obviously.
I live in Melbourne and I have my studio here, but I have a gallery in New York and London, and I show my work in group shows all over the world. I've got a website as well. It gets quite a lot of traffic.
So how did you come to work in sculpture, and what was the first piece you made?
I'd spent a long time learning to oil paint, but I felt I needed to use other means to express myself. One of the big things I started looking at was the impact of consumer medicine on our society, and how that changes the way we see the body. I started to make digital photography, which meant working with a team of other people. That was in 1997, and I thought to myself, I need to work with other people, and my work can't be limited by my own physical abilities.
The very first sculpture I made was a creature I made out of pigskin. This was in the mid-'90s, and the human genome initiative had just been completed, and the human genome had been completely catalogued with a view to being able to change it. I made this whole project around it, asking if we could create new life, what would that life look like?
A taxidermist got me a pig and took off the skin and gave it to me, and I sewed it together and put it in a formaldehyde pot. I was drawing from medical museums of anatomy and pathology — all these formaldehyde pots. I'd seen many very sad babies in formaldehyde pots which hadn't survived because they were Siamese twins — to me they seemed so beautiful and so sad. That's why I made my own baby out of pigskin.
Could you talk me through your process of making "Big Mother," one of the pieces in the show at the Frist? How do you go from having an idea to making a piece?
Well, "Big Mother" is an important work for me. The inspiration came from two experiences. During both of these experiences I realized that the barriers between me and other beings, or the barriers between animals, are incredibly fragile and seem kind of irrelevant.
So the first experience — I was pregnant and I went to a party, and one of my husband's friends was there — I was born in Africa and he was also born in Africa, and when you come from Africa you always have great stories, because Africa is an incredible place. Anyway, his baby sister was taken from his family home by a baboon. This baboon had just lost her child. When baboons lose a child, they don't bury it or just drop it on the ground — they just carry it around until it kind of disintegrates. They grieve so profoundly and hold their children so close, and it's so intense for them, that it moved this particular baboon to substitute another baby — another baby not her own species — for her dead baby. That's why "Big Mother" has got very strong baboon features.
The second thing was when I had my child a few months later; I found it really hard to breast-feed my baby. My sister, who had a 6-month-old, said, "Why don't you breast feed my son, and then you'll learn how to do it." Another barrier came crashing down for me, that one of me and other beings that aren't of my body, or my particular blood. That's why in the work, the baboon mother is breast-feeding a human baby. When you look in her eyes, she's connected to this child, not just physically but emotionally, and that's why she seems so compromised: Where are the parents? Has she taken the child?
So here we have this beautiful, strong creature looking after this child, but really we know that she's kind of compromised. Their relationship is never going to be clear-cut; she's a sort of servant. Even though it's a beautiful sight in a way — breast-feeding a child is very beautiful and valuable — we look in her eyes and see the moroseness and sadness and intensity of feeling, and I hope people can identify with it.
Obviously, I don't think we're going to create a species of creatures to be surrogate nannies or mothers, but I'm a visual artist, and I need to communicate ideas, and I do that in terms of mythological creatures. What a myth does is it allows us to connect to an idea in an emotional way that otherwise would be quite difficult. I feel that these works are kind of like myths — they're stories that people can connect with.This mythological world you create, it’s sort of — I don’t want to use the term post-apocalyptic, but it’s as if these creatures have an awareness that they’re what’s left, and to survive they need to make choices about love and nourishment in the situations they’re in. I also feel that about your piece “The Long Awaited” — there’s this choice about love that I think you’re asking us to ask ourselves.
Definitely the work is about love. In “Big Mother” it’s motherly love, and “The Long Awaited” it’s between a grandmother-like figure and a grandchild. Perhaps those situations seem negative. In “The Long Awaited,” the grandmother-type figure, which is based on a dugong, is so tired that she’s resting on the boy’s leg.
This is the definition, I think, of real love: you allow someone to nurture you and love you. In this situation we see a boy and an older woman who probably aren’t related, but they have this physical connection. They have probably more of a spiritual or soulful connection in that she is allowing him to look after her as much as she’s probably looked after him and nurtured him, because children need to be nurtured.
I chose dugongs for two reasons. They’re similar to the manatee. They’re quite endangered, at least in Australia — they’re kind of these bovine mammal herbivores of the sea — so placid and gentle and open to any kind of abuse, including global warming, so they’re dying out.
The second reason I chose the dugong is these beautiful sensual creatures were the inspirations for the myths around mermaids. When sailors were at sea and saw these beautiful, feminine forms in the sea and imagined them as mermaids, they were actually probably looking at dugongs and manatees. They have human traits anyway.
This particular work is about the kind of love that is possible between species. This boy has it with this creature, this beautiful connection, and it doesn’t matter to him that she’s not human.In these pieces it is children who are able to access other species or chimeras in this loving, engaging way, and that seems very intentional. I often depict children, and there are two reasons for that: Children connect things that are foreign in a way that adults can’t because we’ve grown up with all these ideas about ourselves that inform the way we can now treat other animals, and children haven’t learned those ideas yet. Also, let’s say there was an older human man in “The Long Awaited” instead of that young boy — it might look a bit perverse, because she’s naked and he’s clothed. I don’t really want to bring in the sexual. It might really diminish the work. I have two questions about the actual fabrication of the work. I’m interested in learning about how you do get that ineffable quality that’s atmospheric and so palpable with these piece — it’s obviously being translated visually in certain ways, but it’s just also there. And the more anatomical and more nature-inspired elements — how do both of those make it into these finished sculptures?
I’m not a sculptor, and I’m not a mold-maker or silicone painter or hair puncher. I work with teams of people to make these works, and I’ve worked with many different people over the years. I need to communicate with them about what I need from the sculpture, and I do that in drawing.
I’m a very realistic drawer, so it makes sense that my work translates into these almost hyperrealist sculptures because I need them to have a verisimilitude to the real world — otherwise they wouldn’t be good vehicles for my ideas. I could make these works out of papier-mâché, I could sew them out of pig skin and you could see my stitches, and it would have the same idea behind it, but that isn’t going to translate my idea strongly enough. It would be too much about my mark, my process, my engaging with pigs and skin. I need the process to be almost invisible. For that I have to work with people who are really good at sculpting and fantastic at painting silicone so it looks like real skin.
When the sculpting is being done I’m there all the time saying this arm should be doing that, or this face needs to be saying this to the viewer. I want to depict what the creature’s thinking, and this is what I want the eyes to look like. We’re so adapted to reading every nuance of changes in our faces and there are so many signs, it’s kind of like a taxonomy of signs used to depict a certain idea. You can make a face pathetic or dignified, you can make somebody look disdainful or open.
I think in the end they’re fairly legible — most people walk away with the same meaning of the work, and that’s important to me because my work actually has intentions. I do try to evoke a certain emotive response. I’m not always successful, it doesn’t always work, but I try and do that.
In the end, what I’m trying to do is have a conversation with people about what it is to live a life today where connections between other living species are really important.