Patricia Piccinini - Early Installations
Originally published: What is installation?
by Peter Hennessey (2001)
Boundaries, be it the condition of their construction, their shifting, dissolution, or renegotiation, have always been central to the work of Patricia Piccinini. Of particular interest to her is the way that contemporary biotechnology and virtual media redefine the relationship between the artificial and the natural. In a series of large scale video installations created between 1997 and 2000, reality, artificiality and nature interact to spawn spaces where the traditional delineations begin to dissolve. To a certain extent these projects have paralleled the artist’s photographic and sculptural practice rather than followed it. The former tend to focus on quite specific (tissue engineering, biotech advertising, automotive culture) while the installations often represent more poetic, though no less political, meditations on broader issues.
Throughout Piccinini’s practice, the idea of ‘the natural’ is central; although she is primarily interested in it as a cultural concept, not the primary environmental state that it connotes. In fact, what marks these works is the way in which they simultaneously question the validity of the Western concept of ‘nature’, while also acknowledging its value and force. Piccinini is less interested in debunking the idea of nature than she is in exploring what it might mean within a contemporary context. She is genuinely interested in what nature is in the information age, and certainly open to suggestions.
Traditionally ‘nature’ refers to a primeval organic environmental state as well as those qualities that most appositely characterise and define a society or person. Thus the ‘natural’ is simultaneously that which is most undiluted, most normal, most comfortable and most germane. In an agrarian society, this relationship between a quotidian physical context, socio-cultural underpinnings and the primordial environment is not difficult to understand. However, the idea of ‘the natural’ and its attendant source ‘nature’ becomes extremely anomalous within post-industrial culture. With the appearance of gene therapy and virtual sex, the natural becomes far harder to pin down, perhaps even irrelevant. Yet just as it becomes more virtual, it also becomes more critical and more morally charged. Nature becomes a metaphysical condition where it was once a lived experience.
According to Piccinini, Plasticology (1997) began with a simple question: “What is my ‘natural’ habitat? What is the natural environment of the contemporary person?” Her answer to this was a video installation; a televisual wilderness where, on 57 monitors, the viewer is surrounded by an emerald forest in the grip of a savage gale. As the viewer watches the plants, they realise that something is not quite right. The footage itself is entirely synthetic, computer-generated animations of virtual plants. This is not a mediated representation of a natural environment, it is a ecosystem in its own right, with its own rules and qualities. There are six different models of televisions used in Plasticology, with each displaying its own particular kind of tree; becoming in effect a species. The floor is covered in a tangled undergrowth of cabling and even the air in the room is tinged with an ionised tang that results from the sheer number of electric appliances in the space.
It would be a mistake to think that Plasticology was constructing an argument suggesting the triumph of an artificial life paradigm in place of a more traditional understanding of organic nature. Piccinini’s forest that is deliberately flawed on a number of levels and is constructed to be distinguishable as synthetic rather than imitation. Plasticology, while beautiful, is no paradise. The ferocity of the gale that blows through the trees renders the space an uncomfortable one to linger in. Like the gardeners of classical China, or their imitators in the West, Piccinini is using her garden as a rhetorical instrument, a space in which to play out the dual seductions of both technology and also the originary myths of primordial nature.
The other aspect of this discussion is the place of lived experience; Piccinini’s question of ‘natural habitat’. We see this again in Swell (2000), a multi-projector video installation that immerses the viewer in a massive, rolling seascape of computer generated waves. Like Plasticology, the waves in Swell appear real at first, however as the motion of the surf throws the camera out over the crest of a wave the ocean vista appears somehow more synthetic than we expect, opening a crack in the veracity of the environment. We are made aware that we somewhere else; a synthetic parallel world just as real as the wild, open ocean that it represents, an ocean that most of us have only ever seen on the screen anyway.
As with Plasticology, the artist is not trying to fool the viewers. On the contrary, both works make a feature of their artificiality. Yet despite this, Piccinini’s virtual landscapes are both immersive and convincing. Perhaps we are convinced because we want to be. We want to be able to believe the promises of technology, we want to believe in its liberatory potential, we want to believe in a new nature that will be no less satisfying but easier to control. However, we are pulled back by the works’ refusal to be perfect.
It is interesting to compare Swell with Horizon (1998) a work that also used the ocean but from a very different viewpoint. While the viewer in Swell is placed on the ocean itself, foundering on the crests and troughs of the surf, the viewer in Horizon sits serenely above the water, its turbulence reduced to an abstract pattern of surface waves. The installation itself consists of a horizontal line of 13 identical television screens, presenting a idealised oceanic vista. The audio environment is gentle and we are aware of the motion of the waves and of a setting sun, but time is static; the waves go nowhere and the sun never sets. If the viewer moves within the space, their activity causes an auditory disruption to its tranquillity that only subsides when they become still again. Of course the construction of this interaction is not natural, which is precisely the point because it simultaneously places the viewer within the environment of the work and also reveals the specificity of that environment. This is not the sea, it is another space with its own laws and qualities.
In examining the way in which Piccinini uses these works to manifest the idea of another nature, we should not forget that these landscapes are carefully constructed symbolic spaces. The choice of the ocean is both deliberate and highly suggestive. Nautical imagery and information technology are often tied together in contemporary media, just as trade and exploration where once tied to the sea. As the new e-conomy emerges, a ‘surfable’ internet supplants the spatial paradigms that define traditional commerce, or so we are told. Physical space, where cargo vessels ply the open sea, dissolves into media and communications space as the process of abstraction that began with trans-continental passenger flights and radio is completed by globalisation and networked computing. Like the promises of technology, the oceans that Piccinini constructs are fascinating, beautiful, immersive, convincing, even hypnotic but they are neither perfect nor ideal.
Darkness is at the heart of The Breathing Room (2000) which is one of the artist’s more oblique and confronting works. The viewer hears the work before they see it, entering a dark space from which issue the sounds of breathing. One wall is taken up by three rear projections, each showing an expanse of breathing skin, apparently a detail from some larger body. The skin looks clammy and unfamiliar, and while it could be human but it seems likely that it is not. Similarly ambiguous is where we are looking, the viewpoint could as easily be internal or external. The only thing that is certain is the corporeality of the space; the viewer physically experiences its regular respiration, as the entire floor of the room trembles with each exhaled breath. The audience is drawn into this shared rhythm which, despite its grotesque appearance, is strangely comforting. Then, out of nowhere, the room panics. The viewer feels, then hears and sees a quickening of the pulse. The breathing becomes rapid and shallow, irregular gasps that distort and convulse across the surface of the skin. The audience is gripped by the experience, shocked and perhaps a bit embarrassed by both the violence of the occurrence and by their own inability to do anything about it. Eventually, the panic passes and the room settles back into a more normal, gentle rhythm.
Created in late 1999, The Breathing Room examines and plays out the panic that manifested itself at the ‘turn of the millennium’. However, Piccinini is more interested in the inherent anxiety that sits forever on the other side of the technological dream. The work’s mutant, visceral corporeality reminds us of technology’s continuing pervasive influence on the organic world; genetic engineering and manipulation, biotechnology, organic computing, cloning, tissue engineering and the myriad of other points where technology comes into contact with life itself. The irony is that since the Breathing Room is entirely computer-generated, Piccinini has turned to virtual technology to enact our techno-panic. A tactic which destabilises the obvious readings of the work as post-, super-, pro- or anti-human.
Despite their constant reinstatement of disbelief, the scale, sound and motion of Piccinini’s installation works absorb us. Instead of an ersatz experience of an inaccessible natural world, the artist has created a place where it is the experience that is real, and the natural world that is synthetic. It is not the real world but still it is a real experience; life but not as we know it. Indeed, for Piccinini, it is precisely their synthetic composition that makes these environments real.
We must return to the tradition of landscape gardening to find the logic of this assertion. Gardens function both formally and metaphorically. On a formal level, they bring the wilderness into a cultural context. The wilderness is by definition inaccessible to us, for it loses its pristine status as soon as we come into contact with it. The gardener constructs an environment out of ‘nature’, out of the stuff of wilderness, using it both to signify the wilderness itself as well as to construct narratives about the cultural context into which it is cast.
The wilderness that Piccinini both harvests and refers to is not the organic arcadia of Mother Nature but rather the insubstantial yet all-pervasive media/technology environment that she sees around her. This media landscape is no more or less real, no more or less accessible than the pristine ‘natural’ landscape of traditional organic nature - yet to Piccinini it feels more like home. However, she does see a clear and critical distinction between these two natures; whereas Mother Nature is predicated on the idea of its originary purity, the media landscape is essentially hybridised, compromised and relative. What is interesting about Piccinini’s installations is that these concepts are not cast in opposition to each other, indeed the separation of the two is usually either impossible or irrelevant.