by Justin Manley
Philosopher and poet George Santayana wrote in 1896 that “the good grotesque is novel beauty.” This is an apt slogan for Inter-Natural, Patricia Piccinini’s latest exhibition of hybrid animal/plant/human sculptures and works on paper.
The artist was born in 1965 in Sierra Leone. When she was twelve, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was through her mother’s illness, prolonged over 14 years, that she first encountered the contradictions of the human body which would fascinate her and animate her art. Later, while studying at the Victorian College of Arts, Piccinini spent time in medical museums drawing anatomy specimens, organs and dissected creatures kept in jars. She saw beauty in the way veins lay under the skin, and was fascinated by pathologies — deviations from the norm.
Piccinini rose to international fame in 2003 when her sculpture, The Young Family, represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. The piece shows a row of mixed human-pig children, bred to provide humans with organ transplants, suckling against their mother. Today, she works with
a studio of 3D modelers, mold makers, painters, and other artists who realize her visions using fiberglass, silicone, human hair, video installations and even hot air balloons. Her work explores the social implications of genetic modification, the relationships between humans and other animals, and the possibilities of the post-human body.
Three life-like sculptures anchor the exhibition. These sculptures join human and animal forms in combinations that are disturbing on first sight. The Builder, a cross between human and beaver, greets visitors with a plaintive, buck-toothed stare, its tail sticking out between webbed feet. The Couple shows two bearish humans in a post-coital embrace. In The Bond, a human woman cradles a pale-skinned creature with limbs like a beetle and ears like a bat, wrapped inside a fleshy shell shaped like the sole of a shoe.
Piccinini’s lifelike sculptures in Inter-Natural are gentle grotesques, creatures whose lovability quickly overtakes their strangeness. Alone, on a pedestal, The Builder is pitiable. The man in The Couple dozes with his head resting on the woman’s breast, arm wrapped loosely around her. She reaches over him to stroke his cheek. In The Bond, the creature nestles against the woman, leaning its head on her shoulder as she cradles it. They lean into each other. In these two-part sculptures, the obvious affection of the sculptural figures for each other is a model for the viewer’s response. The grotesque becomes beautiful.
The admiration of beauty is a more sympathetic response than disgust. Even so, beauty still objectifies its target. The gazes of the figures in The Couple and The Bond invite empathy which goes beyond objectifying admiration. In both sculptures, figures look into the distance. There are two ways to read such a pose: as a narrative that has been left incomplete, and therefore open; or as figures looking at nothing at all, occupied by their own thoughts. The sculpture begs for completion. The alternative is that the figure is looking at nothing at all. The first encourages me to provide context for the situation, while the second invites me to imagine what the figure in the sculpture is thinking and feeling. In either case, the creatures come to seem less like grotesques than fellow creatures, sentient and sensitive.
The one in The Bond looks resigned or thoughtful or perhaps fearful; the woman holding it, depending on where you stand, is either grieving or smiling a secret, contented smile. In both sculptures, the figures touch without looking at each other, and that combination, of physical intimacy and visual isolation creates a tension in the relationship, as if each is thinking something that cannot be spoken.
With The Couple, I wonder why the woman lies awake as her partner dreams. The contents of their tent hint at the couple’s circumstances. They have enough to get by, barely: a change of clothes, a radio, a portable stove, a few packets of military-ration meals. Piccinini imagines that the two lovers are teenagers stealing time alone. But there are other possibilities, too. Perhaps they are frugal by choice: young researchers venturing into the wilderness to study the endangered animals whose genes they share. Perhaps they lost their jobs and their homes during a recession, like so many humans. Or perhaps their job applications have been returned unread, marked: hybrids need not apply. Each of these narratives colors the woman’s wakeful gaze with a different meaning: excitement, anticipation, worry or frustration.
Piccinini’s hybrids are often presented as commentaries on the ethics of genetic modification. However, this conventional interpretation doesn’t fit the sculptures on view. The Couple and The Bond stand in for the social outcasts of today, not for the future products of genetic experimentation. It is impossible to enter the tent where The Couple lies and not think of the people living in tents along Potrero Ave., just outside the gallery. The Couple crystallizes the middle-class fear of people without homes. These outsiders are treated by society as less-than-human; in The Couple, they become biologically other-than-human. The sculpture asks which is more grotesque: a human born with claws and a snout, or a society that ignores its responsibility to care for the most vulnerable of its members? In The Bond, the creature looks helpless, with short arms and legs that seem too securely encased in its shell for it to walk upright. One wonders if it feels the same stigma that humans of similar stature and mobility experience. In both cases, their strangeness recontextualizes familiar elements of human difference so that they can be confronted and questioned afresh.
Of all the works on view, the most difficult for me to appreciate is the immersive installation The Field, a meadow of white cast-plastic flowers. Here, the tension between beauty and the grotesque reaches a new extreme. The forms are lumpy and wrinkled, their beauty purely conceptual. Recalling the shape and texture of plucked chickens or lobster claws, the flowers suggest the possibility of growing meat for human consumption, free from animal suffering and
without the environmental footprint of modern factory farming. (A similar earlier work called The Meadow imagines flowers like human hearts and kidneys, an abundant and ethical source for human organ transplants.) The intensity of the contradiction between the grotesque and the beautiful in The Field demonstrates that realizing the benefits of modern bioscience will require not merely scientific innovation, but a new aesthetic as well. The grotesque and the beautiful will have to be redefined.
One element of biological difference conspicuously missing from Inter-Natural (and all of Piccinini’s life-like sculpture) is the articulation of race. Throughout her oeuvre naked skin is a critical signifier of humanity; the glue that binds these strange accretions of body parts into a familiar unity. The problem is that all of it is white, and that homogeneity critically undermines the artist’s project of dissolving the boundaries between organisms and species in favor of a more expansive understanding of identity and kinship. A project of such ambition, carried out for a global audience, cannot be realized without acknowledging the fullness of human difference.
Piccinini says that producing a beautiful, realistic illusion of darker human skin tones is a technical problem her studio is working to solve. This is good news. Technologies of representation have long neglected and erased people of color. (Think of Kodak film, which
misrepresented Black people for decades, or modern computer vision technologies, which are most accurate at analyzing white men). It is heartening that Piccinini’s studio is exploring a palette that better reflects the diversity of her global audience.
Beyond the technical, Piccinini will face tremendous artistic challenges in representing people of color. It is one thing to imagine a grotesque white body; it is quite another to transform bodies of color which have historically been seen by white imperialists as grotesque. Further, Piccinini’s sculptures are personal as well as political: she often uses herself and her family as models. To bring her signature touch of empathy and affection to new kinds of bodies, she may need to find new models and collaborators, as well as new ways of collaborating. If she can brave these challenges, she will continue to lead at the frontier of artistic engagement with otherness, empathy and radical kinship.
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Patricia Piccinini: “Inter-Natural” at Hosfelt Gallery through January 26, 2019.
About the author:
Justin Manley is a Bay Area writer and engineer. He writes about architecture, technology and art.