Originally published: Public Talk at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
by Patricia Piccinini (2003)
Sandman is a work that I feel very strongly about, because I think that it is the most Australian work that I have made to date. While I believe that all of my works are in some way a product, and therefore a reflection, of an Australian life, Sandman is the only work where I have explicitly focused on Australian culture and experiences.
Sandman grew out of my long-standing interest in 'car culture', and particularly out of my interest in 'Panel Vans.' While German audiences will never have heard of a 'panel van', Australian audiences recognise the reference immediately; the Sandman panel van was the archetypal example of this type of vehicle, which was a kind of customised delivery van that grew to popularity in the late 1970s and early 80s. The yellow vehicle that you will see in my photographs is a beautiful example of the Sandman panel van.
While 'custom vanning' was a worldwide phenomenon, this particular type of van existed nowhere else. The USA has the Bedford, Germany had the Kombi but only Australia had the Sandman and they represent the last, and indeed only, indigenous Australian car design. They are also a potent symbol, with many associations and reverberations. They were the adolescent surfer's vehicle of choice, nicknamed the 'shaggin' wagon' because their interiors were often the site of furtive sexual activity. For people of my generation, they symbolised freedom but also, particularly for girls, a sort of dangerous excitement.
The idea for my work Sandman was born from my desire to work with this symbol, but without reproducing the old clichés. This was quite hard because I am actually working with many of the archetypal ideas associated with the panel van; adolescence, the ocean, sexuality, threat. It was from all of these - combined with my own personal interest in ideas surrounding evolution, transformation, and the changing boundaries between the artificial and the natural - that my idea of Sandman was born.
One of the things about these vans that fascinated me was the shark-like 'gills' that were cut into the body near the front wheels. I loved the way that it sort of 'animalised' the car, giving it a sort of predatory feel. Around about the same time, a zoologist I was working with told me about 'branchial arches'. These are gill-like structures that are clearly visible on the necks of human embryos, and indeed the embryos of pretty much every other animal on the planet. They are an obvious evolutionary link back to the first fishes that climbed out of the sea.
In normal human foetal development, these branchial arches develop into parts of the throat and inner ear, however - and this is what really interested me - in some people they do not develop properly, and remnants of these branchial arches remain visible after the child is born. Usually these atavisms are surgically corrected at birth, but I was fascinated by the possibility of a person who might carry this evolutionary evidence of our oceanic origins with them into later life (I personally know two people who have this condition), and thus the main human protagonist in the Sandman work was conceived; the adolescent girl with visible, gill-like branchial arches who appears in the film and the photographs.
There are clear formal and visual links between the girl with her branchial arches and the van with its gills, with the ocean and adolescence that the viewer can see recurring throughout the work. Also, there is one idea that links all of the elements in Sandman together; the idea of transformation. At every point we see elements and figures in transformation. Obviously, the sculpture itself represents a panel van that has been physically transformed. I imagine that something has happened in the back of the van that has been so transformative that it has wrenched the vehicle into an entirely new, organic form and then left it, like an empty cocoon. The girl is an adolescent, undergoing the same personal and sexual transformations that we all do at that age. Also, in the slightly nostalgic atmosphere of the photographs, there is a sense of the cultural transformations that have taken place in Australia in the last 20 years.
There is a, for me, an uncharacteristically melancholy feeling in Sandman. The sculpture is a dark relic, the ocean and landscapes are grey and stormy and the skies white rather than brilliant blue. The somewhat bland, almost claustrophobic, coastal town is at odds with the prevailing European image of Australia as a land of endless sun and boundless horizons. It is however an image of Australia that is very familiar to most Australians. It is very much the Australia of my teenage years.
Sandman works with the alienation and listlessness that many teenagers feel, which is heightened in the case of the protagonist by her obvious physical difference. Like many teenagers, she feels like she doesn't belong, but in her particular case she is lead to question her position in evolution, and wonder if her place is actually elsewhere, perhaps even back in the sea.
In the film that accompanies the work, we see the girl swimming out in the ocean. We can see immediately that it is hard for her - she is not 'aqua girl' - and the branchial arches on her neck are not functional gills. In the film, I contrast the rough and stormy world on the surface with the much more beautiful and serene scenes as she sinks under. The looping format of the work leaves it ambiguous as to what actually happens to her, although we see her at her most calm as she sinks into the depths where she is most at risk.