Just Because Something Is Bad, Doesn't Mean It Isn't Good
by Basak Doga Temur (2011)
…And this is the end, the end/ This is the end/ Of the world/ And it's time we saw a miracle/ Come on it's time for something biblical/ To pull us through/ And pull us through…
Muse, Apocalypse Please
In “Hold Me Close to Your Heart”, Patricia Piccinini sets in motion various mediums such as sculpture, installation, drawing and video in a compilation of her works from 1997 to the present. Piccinini deals with various vital issues of contemporary life with reference to today’s technologies, consumerism and the construct of nature. Her work addresses the ambivalent state of mind caused by opposing conventional wisdoms: one that there is an abundance of ‘prophetic signs’ indicating that we are approaching the ‘end time’, and two, that science and its technologies will heal the world and make it a paradisiacal never-ending place. According to her, to accept that contemporary technologies are going to revolutionise our world and make it a better place is as “rubbish” as to claim these technologies in the least worthless. She states that she’s “fascinated by consumerism and its thin, fragile and unjustifiable beauty”. Mindful of the forces at play behind the shiny, seductive yet camouflaged perfection, she borrows its limitless polishing strategy and creates a similar aura, resulting in a quite unfamiliar ‘end product’.
Through the puzzling appearance of these ‘end products’ one of the antagonisms her works tackle is the perpetually revisited opposition of ‘nature vs. culture’. However, the way in which she explores these is focused on their contemporary constructs and implications. She is interested in what constitutes ‘nature’ for a “contemporary, movie watching, in-vitro fertilized mall-rat.” Her creatures look often ‘abnormal’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘freakish’. Their size, proportions, highly realistic fleshy finishes evoke a sense that they could have been evolved into a ‘normal’ human or animal. Still, they seem to be genetically modified, lab produced mutants, albeit with friendly eyes, cute smiles and adorable poses. The strength of Piccinini’s work evokes this tension through direct physical encounters as she brings the viewer face to face with hideous yet friendly creatures in an act that prompts us to reconsider the accepted binary oppositions of nature vs. culture, beauty vs. ugliness/disgust and necessity vs. luxury. Meanwhile, the infant-like attributes of these creatures immediately evoke an inevitable sense of sympathy, care, affection, love and even an urge to cuddle and protect them: a genuine experience which implies that maybe “Just because something is bad, doesn’t mean it isn’t good”.
The exhibition “Hold Me Close to Your Heart” proposes an experience, a journey to another world: one that is simultaneously unfamiliar and strangely similar to ours. Although it may seem like a journey to the future, it doesn’t involve a time machine; instead, it encourages the viewer to stay at this very moment to focus on the highly contemporary issues and debates around technology, media culture, consumerism and science. This journey encompasses Piccinini’s response to ARTER’s multi-storey structure by treating the space as an installation that consists of three stops: The Street, The Country and The House—three distinct atmospheres to be experienced as a journey to another world. Brightly illuminated, The Street comments on the shiny world of commodities and the nature of everyday life in a post-industrial urban environment; The Country is inhabited by invented hybrid creatures, surrogates for endangered species to further explore the contemporary construct of ‘nature’, our place in it, and our attempts to control it. Finally, the most intimate part of the journey, The House, invites the viewer into a homely setting where the residents are asleep and into a meditation on being human, on our creations and our responsibilities towards them.
It’s no coincidence that the starting point of this journey is Istiklal Street, a pedestrian ‘highway’, as it is visited by nearly three million people a day at the weekends. Lines with cafes, restaurants, cinemas, art galleries, bars, clubs, stores of many kinds, and a recently acquired mega shopping mall, this constantly transforming street is yet another creature of outrageous scale: the single unchallenged culture-arts-entertainment-commerce axis that serves an entire urban conglomerate with an official population of over 13 million. A passer-by could be forgiven for mistaking the exhibition’s entrance for just another blazing shop window they pass on a casual promenade, though they will soon realise that there is something odd about the hybrid scooter-deer couple in the display window. With their curvy, glossy surfaces and perfect finishing, this pair of scooters, “The Lovers”, appears as “a snapshot from an ecology of mechanical wildlife”. Along with “Thicker than Water”, these cuddled scooter pup siblings, with a timid look on their faces expressing that they are afraid to be separated, these works are part of a fragment of Piccinini’s works which explore the idea of nature rendered in mechanical form. “Panelworks” that seem like car upholstery artefacts resembling bodily organs patched together with a perfect finishing on top are an object of desire we might give ourselves over and touch. By anthropomorphising the scooters yet preserving their shining and attractive commodity ‘nature’, Piccinini extends the concept of artificial intelligence to artificial emotion; she juxtaposes the undomesticated and the domesticated and implies a reconsideration of the ‘factual knowledge’ that nature is under our control. “Maybe a cow isn’t just a machine to produce milk and meat, as these scooters aren’t usable vehicles.” “Plasticology” (a word coined from plastic and ecology) is a garden constituted of 3D CG artificial plants and trees swaying in an imagined breeze, displayed on piles of regular TV monitors. In some sense this garden is similar to an artificial recreational area that we might come across in a shopping mall. Amid the 'plants is a bird on one of the monitors; it flies away as we approach only to return as we depart. This elusive creature is perhaps a reminder that we are increasingly accustomed and immune to the artificialities of everyday life through computer generated images, environments and highly realistic virtual sound effects.
In The Country we see Patricia Piccinini’s biomorphic infant creatures, the “Cyclepups”, which “reverse the idea of the genetic engineering of nature into a genetic naturalization of engineering”. They are playing, or maybe waiting for human parents to adopt them as a domestic pet for their child. The infant traits (big eyes, big heads and small noses) of the “Cyclepups” despite their industrial glossy finishing, evoke sympathetic, warm-hearted responses in the viewer and raise questions concerning our pursuit of satisfaction for our human appetite for the adorable and beautiful. One of her “Nature’s Little Helpers”, “The Surrogate” is true to its name as it stands in for the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat, endangered due to habitat loss and change, drought and competition with cattle, sheep and rabbits for food. Piccinini escapes the myth that science and biotechnology are remote, specialised domains that belongs to scientists , ‘the supreme experts’ and takes control by creating surrogates for the endangered. She introduces alien species into The Country as scientists have done many times by introducing alien species in well-intentioned efforts at agricultural pest control. Piccinini doesn’t proffer these imaginative creature-sculptures as a solution to a problem but as a reminder that our attempt to take nature under control can have unintended consequences—the extinction of a species.
In a statement for “Eulogy”, a recent project, Piccinini says: “…in my work I try to imagine what could be or might be, but isn’t. In doing this I am often struck by how restrained my own inventions are, when compared to the truly bizarre creatures that actually do exist”. This work is a eulogy for the blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), which inhabits the deep waters of the coasts of mainland Australia and is currently facing extinction due to deep-sea fishing. Piccinini finds it hard to imagine a Save the Blobfish campaign for this inedible, rarely seen and unattractive fish as it doesn’t have the charm of an adorable panda or mountain gorilla. We once again face the tension underneath the eternal human dilemma: our attempts to control nature for human survival, despite ‘good intentions’ are resulting in devastation and threaten ultimate destruction. Nevertheless, through “Eulogy”, Piccinini reminds that there is a residue of hope for mankind: “It is an eulogy for this particular specimen, supported in death by a very ordinary looking man. Perhaps he is one of the millions of ordinary people who neither know nor care much about the fate of the blobfish. Even so he seems genuinely moved by the fate of this unprepossessing fish. There is hope in that.”
Approaching The House, we travel from the public to a private sphere. The space has been transformed into a house at night; arranged with furniture, domestic artefacts, curtains and the most intimate and domestic of the artist’s works. In a subdued, comforting, homely atmosphere she encourages us to step forward, ‘break in’ and make ourselves feel ‘at home’. The inhabitants of this house are asleep and have forgotten to turn off the TV which is playing a video, “The Gathering”: we’re unsure whether it is dusk or dawn but we are invited to peep into another house. This time the house seems deserted, we see a girl lying on the floor of an adult bedroom. When we see some weird yet cute creatures that start crawling towards her, we feel concerned as she’s in a vulnerable state; sleeping on the floor all alone. Meanwhile, we might be consoled by the presence of the only awake adult figure in The House, “Big Mother”. While parenting a human baby to sleep, she is keeping an eye on the children and creatures sleeping all cuddled and spooned. They are one big human-animal-creature family reminding us of the changing structure of procreation with the emergence of third party reproduction processes such as sperm or ovum donation and surrogacy. The House encourages the viewer to meditate on the idea of what constitutes family with a sceptical stance towards ourselves and our creations. Keeping in mind that recent research on the mapping of the human genome indicated that humans share a large portion of their DNA with other living beings, this approach to ‘family’ challenges the prevalent notion of ‘hierarchy of life’, which places humans above all other life forms, and implies that life itself is inherently valuable and admirable.
Piccinini states that “Something that art can do, and that makes it valuable, is that it can transport the viewer to somewhere new. It can create a new thing or experience that exists outside of the rules of global capital. I would like to make work that can be experienced as well as read. I believe that there is something out, a contemporary wilderness of some sort of hybrid natural/technological stuff, and I am interested in making art out of that. I try to create in my work a space that can pick up on a moment of compromised beauty, and enjoy the wonder of that without denying its flaws and fallacies.” In “Hold Me Close to Your Heart”, she leads us to a state of contemplation suggesting to remember and reconsider the power of being a family; a power which finds its source in holding each other close to our hearts; in altruism and generosity, inexhaustible patience, being unprejudiced and accepting of all failures, idiocies and ugliness, to hold together even in the most unbearable plight. It offers one of the many keys to hope for those of us wishing to reconcile ourselves with our creations. By accepting that ours is not a supreme master species and that we are no more valuable, special, beautiful or intelligent than other beings and by appreciating diversity and difference, we may save ourselves from the tragic end of our own predilection to control everything, exterminate the undesired, sterilise all ‘defects’. Maybe after we heed the plea of the other and dare to hold one another close to our hearts we may create that future vision of coexistence
This book, which accompanies the viewers first encounter with Piccinini’s works in Istanbul, aims at providing an overview of the discussions her work has provoked. “We Are Family” is the catalogue text of the exhibition of the same title, which was Australia’s representation at the 2003 Venice Biennale, curated by Linda Michael and introduces the viewer to Piccinini’s unsual family. Also presented in this book is a conversation between the artist and Laura Fernandez Orgaz where Piccinini states that she is happy to talk about her work, but that she is not interested in telling people what to think. Peter Hennessey’s essay focuses on the artist’s installation works which “often represent more poetic, though no less political, meditations on broader issues”. In “Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture's Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country”, Donna Haraway writes about Piccinini’s art, engaging in dialogue with the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s book Reports from a Wild Country. Each essay sheds light on Piccinini’s practice encompassing diverse formal and conceptual layers from various perspectives to constitute a comprehensive guide for the viewer strolling through Piccinini’s seemingly unusual yet familiar world.