Tuesday, 5 May 2009

On Patricia Piccinini

Nothing should work about the art of Patricia Piccinini.  Her special effects mutation sculptures ought to be kitsch, their appeal to the post-structuralist theories of gender, identity and biology politics ought to obscure any deep felt response and their confrontinal transgression (or at the very least the fact that you can use such a phrase about them) should set off all sorts of artwank alarm bells.  Somehow none of this is true and in 'Evolution', a retrospective exhibition in Hobart's Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, she makes a deep appeal for cerebral, visceral and emotional connection.

Piccinini has a very particular practice.  She creates sculptures, and also short films, drawings and photographs, that have a special effect like level of realism (most reminiscent of Ron Mueck's experiments with scale) even as they represent impossible mutations between human figures and pigs, reptiles or apes.  It sounds awful (and I mean 'bad', not simply repellent), but the figures manage to avoid being beautifully executed freakshow exhibits.  Once inside this feels a long way away from vogueish shlock and I found myself moving through deep felt and often contradictory responses.  A typically moving piece is 'The Long Awaited', on a bench a boy seems to fall asleep with the head of a wrinkled, grey haired, naked sea creature cradled in his lap.  It is achingly affecting, the creature with her wrinkled dugs might be Tiresias or an ancient mermaid, but she also exudes an immense weight that might be resignation or peace.  The boy too is ambiguous, his features hint at Down's Syndrome but the most striking figure is the way his tiny hand cradles the creature's immense head.  'The Long Awaited' speaks eloquently of acceptance and benediction, there is something wrenching in its grace.

Tasmania, with its singular and sometimes mythologized zoology, is a perfectly eery home for Piccinini's work.  'Evolution' is interwoven into the fabric of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.  A room with thylacine remains and a massive diorama of native wildlife (much of it unique to the island) serves as the ante-room to the exhibition, which has already colonised its displays.  In a newly polluted diorama (where manmade garbage sits between Tasmanian devils and wallabies) a contorted shark like figure that could be plucked from Dante's inferno, 'Bottom Feeder', appears to scavenge for rubbish.  Elsewhere museum staff carry pink and hairy baby creatures in black slings.

The most striking, not only physically but also for its mixture of resonance and quiet, is a room sized diorama called 'Perhaps the world is fine tonight'.  It creates the illusion of a mountain top at night, overhead fly a pair of eagles carrying, like perverted storks, a scrotal mass of flesh.  Below a girl is asleep, perhaps, on a stone that in its altar-like flatness suggests she may even be a sacrifice, it might be one of Goya's 'Caprichos' rendered in fur and fibreglass.  She has neatly removed her shoes and seems at peace for around her she is watched over by a host of curious timid Tasmanian devils.  For once, in the representation of these marsupials, no fang is bared and they appear at once solicitous and concerned at what this intruder in duck egg blue might be.  The whole work is shadowed with unease, we ought to feel uncomfortable, and yet the sense of peace and acceptance in the face of the alien and sinister (and I think that so much of Piccinini's work is about our need to accept the other and the difficulties that we face in doing so) creates a welling sense of optimism.  

Piccinini's world is not a version of 'E.T.' where here mutants are pedalled off into the moon glow by some plucky curatorial staff.  'Evolution' has been skillfully curated so that we first walk through pain, suspicion and anxiety, the world is not always a happy one for these creatures.  One, in the video piece 'When my baby (when my baby)' is not much more than the bunched and crinkled brow of orang-utan fur seen through a veil of tears.  

One of Piccinini's best known works, 'Big Mother' follows.  A naked neanderthal-like woman, as much baboon as human, but for her pink vulnerability, suckles a human child whilst hunched warily, one club like hand hanging down a reminder of animal power.  Beside her are two pieces of pale blue luggage, they hint that she might be displaced, a refugee from something awful, certainly a stranger in a strange land.  For all her strangeness, her shell like spinal column forcing through her skin, the mandril like cheeks we still look for anthropomorphic points of connection and we find them in her eyes.  She looks into the mid-distance, not quite at ease and familiar enough for us to wish to take the fear away.

Much of the effect and affect of the work in 'Evolution' comes from a dislocation of our expectations, children ought to be afraid of things with claws and an exoskeleton.  By the time we reach 'Undivided', where the creature from under the bed (and from the equally vulnerable piece 'Surrogate') might have climbed into it to join in a tender protective cuddle.  Again the scaly textures come up against pale blue (the key colour, with fleshy pink, in Piccinini's palette) flannelette and it is hard to say which is the most vulnerable or yielding.  

Piccinini's extraordinarily detailed sculpture renders flesh realistically, to the point where veins break through, hair bristles and wounds weep.  The realism is emotional as well as physical.  Pre-teen children, human or not, are a constant throughout.  The point of vulnerability is obvious but no less effective. This is not necessarily art about childhood or motherhood, although both are here and illustrate themes well.  Childhood represents an assumption of the ability of children to accept the 'other' prior to social conditioning, their responses are direct and unmediated.  Similarly motherhood represents a point of transformation and anxiety, 'Evolution' in practice.

There is so much flawed, tender and confused humanity in 'Evolution' that it easily transcends most conceptual art.  There a plethora of technological and theoretical collisions that the work passes through, but this is not an exhibition about mutation.  Piccinini shows that through contact and exposure humans can evolve to accept one another, that peace and comfort come from engagement.  This is basic but true, and it is why this exhibition is essential.

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