Those Who Dream by Night
by Patricia Piccinini (2012)
Nectar / From Within / Thorns
The first gallery juxtaposes three works that, in different ways, capture some of the the key themes and formal elements of the entire show. Both Nectar and From Within reflect on the irrepressible, productive capacity of the organic world. This is a theme I return to repeatedly in this show. It is something that is both wonderful but also unsettling. In Nectar, a beautiful honey-like substance pours uncontrollably from one of the small amorphous organisms that I am so fond of. The abundance of this viscous liquid is both amazing and also disturbing. Where is it coming from? Is it safe? Will it ever stop? Is it delicious? Would we risk a taste? It sits on top an old refrigerator, which is an object that is designed to contain, and to hold things in stasis, stopping the natural process of decay. However, the new object sits on top of the fridge, and appears certain to overwhelm the aging whitegood with its unstoppable abundance. In many ways, this small work encapsulates the combination of anxiety and wonder that motivates many of my figurative sculptures.
From Within is a new video work that is another meditation on the productive capacity of bodies and abundance. A woman sits within a cavernous space composed of translucent amber stalactites. She leans forwards and begins to disgorge an apparently limitless stream of golden honey-like liquid. As the material pools on the floor at her feet, it becomes obvious that this is the same stuff that the entire world around her is composed of. The woman is unexpectedly serene, as this viscous liquid pours out of her. It seems a deliberate process, a carefully controlled emission rather than a violent regurgitation. However, it goes against the deep-seated intuition that nothing but breath should come out of our mouth, and indeed that nothing good ever comes back out of the body. Still, the world that this woman has constructed out the the matter within her is undeniably beautiful.
Formally, the voluptuous, amorphous, liquid forms and their resulting accretion and accumulation recur in many of the works in the show. Sometimes they are the amorphous fleshy and abstractly corporeal forms of the more ambiguous figures like Ghost, Atlas or Sphinx. We also see them again in the paintings or bronze in the upstairs gallery.
There is an obvious metaphorical dimension to this work. The interiority of the space that she sits in and the dreamlike quality of the soundtrack both suggest that this may be the interior world of the woman that we are seeing. It may be a world she has constructed around herself for protection, or possibly something more joyous, simply for its own sake. That is unclear. There is certainly a darkness to the work, but there is also a tranquility that is more sanguine.
Honey is a particularly interesting substance for me. When we eat it, we are the third creature to have digested it, as it must pass through two bees before it gets to us. It is probably the earliest example of humans utilising the unique biological processes of other creatures for their own purposes. Apiculture is a very ancient symbiosis between people and bees that displays exactly the sort of the inter-species connections that seem so radical when played out in contemporary science.
Moving away from thematics, the processes and materials - particularly the hyper-realistic silicone - that I use come with certain baggage - expectations about how things are done and to what ends. Naturalism and technical perfection are assumed to be the ultimate standards by which the success of the work can be gauged. Often I think virtuosity gets in the way of the work itself. I am not especially invested in these processes, although I do find them both fascinating and useful. What I do find interesting, is when I can use them in a way that I'm not supposed to. In this exhibition, there are a number of works which break the rules of 'suspended disbelief' that underlie the hyper-realism of the works.
Amongst these is the final work in the room, Thorns, which is very much a kind of drawing, but rendered in hair. Hair has figured in my practice since art school, and in this show there are a series of panels which focus on hair, as a material, process and subject. These works use the process of 'hair punching' developed to give life to the hyperreal figures, but in a fashion that is much closer to drawing. Sometimes the hair is used to render ambiguous or paradoxical forms, in other cases such as this one, the representation is more literal. Within the imagery of these forms, the hair itself is both literal and representative. Sometimes it is hair and sometimes it is hair looking like something else. In this way the hyperrealism of the process is undercut by the pictorial nature of the object itself.
Obviously, this image refers to the history of botanical illustration which is something that I am often drawn to. However, it also reminds us of the essentially sexual nature of flowers. The idea of fecundity is one that also recurs throughout the show.
The Lovers / Ghost
The Lovers follows on from a number of works that explore the idea of nature rendered in mechanical form. These works wonder at the naturalisation of technology in contemporary life, and imagine a life-cycle for machines that is closer to that of animals. In doing so, it evokes the increasingly ‘natural’ place that technology occupies in our lives, but also the growing role that technology plays in the natural world. In a world where we get our food from the supermarket, the cow becomes a ‘milk machine’ and the milk itself the product of a mechanised process where the animal is just one small biological cog in a much larger aparatus. However, in depicting the scooters as wild animals rather than domesticated ones - deers rather than sheep - the work also suggests a world of technology that is beyond our mastery.
I have several motivations for making these works. On one level, I simply love the forms. The sinuous curves and perfect glossy surfaces are the illogical conclusion of contemporary automotive attractiveness but they also evoke the voluptuousness of modernist sculpture. Beyond that, I also feel that these wild machine creatures undercut our basic assumption that technology is always within our control. This idea is at the core of our beliefs about it and is assumed to be true, but I sometime wonder if that is really so. I love the idea that The Lovers is a snapshot from an ecology of mechanical wildlife that we will never see. This particular work has softness and intimacy that contradicts the glossy hardness of the surfaces and materials. The work depicts a couple, suggesting the potential for reproduction, which ultimately denotes independence, a life in which people are no longer necessary.
The other sculpture in this room, Ghost, is a little more ambiguous. This is one of a number of works in the show that imagines the body as amorphous and protean - definitely corporeal but not necessarily an animal in any recognizable way. In some ways, this is a response to our understanding of the body as essentially mutable. From the very cellular level of organisms to the physical appearance of people, we now expect that bodies can be changed to suit our needs and desires. This is often a comforting notion, with a very limited range of possible forms imagined according to a narrow concept of aesthetics. But when seen in terms of the endless outpouring of From Within or the technological wilderness of The Lovers, the possibilities become more interesting. For me Ghost is a very sanguine work, funny and strangely endearing.
Sphinx / Atlas / Hair Drawings
Like Ghost, Sphinx and Atlas are works where the hyperrealism of the sculptural process is subverted by the deliberate anti-naturalism of the forms themselves. It is hard to gauge whether the figures are literal or metaphorical. There is none of the certainty that you usually find with highly realistic figures. With Sphinx, there is a reference to the the use of bodies for production, which is a theme that has long interested me. In this case, the ‘head’, which is somewhat suggestive of genitals, shelters what appears to be a human organ. However, this glistening object could just as easily be a large bean or seed. I do see Sphinx in particular as an expression of raw fecundity. It reminds us that the earliest sculptures - the stone age venus figures - were depictions of fertility. There is a clear formal references to ancient sculpture, however just as clearly whatever this is is far too nebulous be any sort of creature.
The figure sits on top of a black bronze block, which has a massive material honesty that contrasts with the pale artifice of the silicone body’s corporeality. As with the hair panels, Sphinx - along with Ghost and Atlas - are drawings made solid. They render physical all of the vagueness and obscurity of the original pencil drawings. I am less certain about what these works mean than many others, but in some ways that is more satisfying.
The other sculpture in this room, Atlas, is one that I find particularly enigmatic. This is a work that come from drawing rather than from a definite conceptual thematic. It is quite a formal work, a play with materials and anatomy. I’m not quite sure this figure could be called a creature or being, yet its corporeality is undeniable. It reflects this idea of protean corporeality, being a strange sort of organic yet non-animal like character. The figure is actually a body folded in on itself, which stands atop a pair of helmet-like boots. There is a sense of a careworn body, trudging. I like the juxtaposition of the materials - the glossy fibreglass boot-helmets and the silicone body - the artificial versus the natural. Or perhaps it is vice-versa, as fibreglass is in fact the ‘natural’ material of helmets whereas the fleshiness as entirely artificial and counterfeit. In this way, it also continues the idea of the commingling of the artificial and the natural that is seen in The Lovers.
The Carrier / Paintings / Deeply Held Breath
After the compressed fleshiness of the gallery below, the upstairs gallery is expansive and open. This room contains two sculpture, The Carrier and A Deeply Held Breath. The latter almost provides a fitting end to the show that begins with the video From Within. It is a small bronze that combines the molten, golden glow of the the honey seen in the video with the amorphous corporeality of the sculptures below. It could almost be seen as a relic from the environment in the video, or the fossilised remains of a figure like Ghost or Atlas.
The Carrier is a large sculpture of an ursine figure carrying an older woman. Unlike the figures on the ground floor, this is a much more recognisable creature. Clearly a chimera, is is also a being that might actually be. This work discusses what we want from the creatures we might create, but also wonders at unexpected emotional connections that might arise between species. In this work we have the paradox of the magnificent and powerful creature who might be a servant to the physically weakened human. There is no obvious animosity, but we can’t help but wonder about the possible inequity of the situation. This work follows on from a number of earlier works that explore the vexed relationship between humans and those beings we might create to assist us.
While it seems to be a close and warm relationship there is something disconcerting about the bias implicit in the clothed body of the woman and the creature’s nakedness. The title of the work implies a certain darkness with it double meaning: on one hand a literal description of the creature’s role but on the other the idea of an organism that transmits a disease but does not necessarily succumb to it. Ultimately, despite the element of pathos, this is not a negative work. In fact, the dignity and mutual respect that both figures share is clearly optimistic. The woman is a beautiful older woman, which is not something that is so often seen in contemporary art. The creature is powerful, not handsome but impressive nonetheless. The two figures are bound together somehow, but exactly how is ambiguous. They are physically close, back to back, but despite that they are looking in the same direction. This implies a shared vision, literally a shared viewpoint. It is very possible that the creature is not a slave at all. He is not dressed in a uniform and his demeanour is proud and independent. It is quite plausible that he is simply helping the woman, and that she is in fact beholden to his generosity. Even equality and intimacy are conceivable as the basis of their relationship. They might simply be friends, embarked on a journey together. Yet, it is hard to forget that humans are rarely so equitable with other animals. The dynamic tension between the light and the dark in this piece is very much at the heart of my practice, which makes I feel that The Carrier really epitomises the key themes and modes in my practice.
Surrounding this very narrative work, is a new series of canvases that, for want of a better term, I am calling paintings. These paintings form a sort of landscape that both contains and contextualises the sculptures. Many of the works in this exhibition are made of silicone, and these paintings began as a by-product of the casting techniques that are used to create them.
The paintings come almost automatically, an interplay between the natural tendencies of the silicone to flow and accrete and my own desire to control it. I am just as fascinated in the inherent material properties of silicone as I am by its ability to mimic the material properties of flesh. Like all great mimics, silicone is a paradox, best known for being something else. Recently I have become increasingly interested in the material itself, in the backs of moulds and the inside of castings, in the overflows and errors. I find the spills and drips both fascinating and evocative, because in some ways it reminds me of the creatures I create: unlovely and unwanted yet beautiful and irrepressible all the same. In the studio we collect these overflows, to keep as tests and samples, to feed back into the process of refinement and increased verisimilitude. However, I felt the silicone deserved more. It is the lifeblood of so much of my work, on so many levels. These paintings are my attempt to come to terms with the materiality of the sort of fleshy silicone that I work with. That is not to say that they are either haphazard or especially genuine. Rather, they are the intersection between the silicone's tendencies and my own. The use of the same flesh tints that are used to create the sculptures gives each work a unique skin tone, which taken together suggests a variety of ethnicities.
The process involved in creating them is also essentially the same as that depicted in From Within, the video that commences the show. In that sense, they also suggest the same ideas of irrepressible outpouring. Despite their very formal underpinnings, they also begin to take on organic visual narratives of their own. They start to look like cells, or organism or land forms. In that way, they are perhaps landscape paintings - depictions of the parallel world that much of my work comes from.