by Selby Sohn
“Oh, I can’t,” my husband said when I showed him Patricia Piccinini’s work. What he meant was that he couldn’t handle looking at her work. Yet, he was still staring at it. “Remember?” I asked him. “We saw her work at that weird art hotel in Durham.” His mind couldn’t hear me. He was transfixed. “Oh, I can’t,” he repeated, “I can see why it’s good. I just can’t.”
My sister had a different take. As someone who was a farmer for years and wants to become a mother, she only saw Piccinini’s creatures as adorable and endearing. She felt for them.
I tried to wipe my mind of these opinions when heading to Piccinini’s current exhibition, A tangled path sustains us. I wanted my senses to have their way with me. I saw a lush, incredibly accurate replica of a forest at Hosfelt Gallery. It even has a creek. Embedded within it are hybrid creatures made of silicone and fiberglass doused in Caucasian skin tones —looking like a cross between hairless cats, Laura Van Duran glycerin blobs and somehow, seemingly, every other animal. In-person, Piccinini’s creatures are much cuter than they appear in photographs. Their diminutive sizes alone make them adorable. I wanted to protect them, shroud them, and keep them from the rain.
One such creature, Shadowbat, a bat with a sweet childlike face, hangs upside down beneath umbrella-like wings with thumbs for claws, sparse blond hair, and skin that overlaps like bedsheets. While She Sleeps shows two creatures cuddling tenderly. They have thin, toned bodies, shiny, lush hair and rat faces. Defender, even more rat-like, has patches of dinosaur bone curling down its spine, interspersed with swatches of thick hair and an angry face that looks ready to bite. Peeking out from its vagina is a child’s shiny, pink face. My favorite creature, Clutch, has a head resembling the sole of a shoe. It has long, bushy eyebrows, closed human eyes, a pelican’s face, and a body that loops around its young in a warm embrace. Its skin looks like a combination of leather and human skin, folding, wrinkling, and overlapping, sometimes looking sewn.
I found myself repulsed by aspects of these creatures, as my husband was, and drawn to them irresistibly, as my sister was. It was weird to have both feelings simultaneously. Rather than canceling each other out, they created a more powerful mingled feeling that I’d never experienced; they pushed and pulled, resonating and disarming all at once. When I found myself having only one of the feelings, say, tenderness while looking at The Rescuers (a statue of two children holding a koala), my mind relaxed into an expectation. On the other hand, Piccinini’s transgenic creatures —chimeras made from different animals — offered me something different: a mingled feeling that is more powerful because it refuses to settle into something I’ve already experienced.
After the exhibition, I had a dream that I was looking at the inside of my vagina. I was viewing it head-on, like a dentist with bright lights and a magnifying glass. I had the impossible vantage point of seeing its depth and every wall of it simultaneously—like a car driving through a tunnel. It occurred to me later that this dream was very Patricia Piccinini because while my vagina is a vital part of me, I have never actually seen its depth. I find it amazing that something so fleshy and real and so much a part of me could also be a complete mystery. The same holds for most of my body—my intestines, nose cavity, hair follicles, and brain folds. I could go on. This tactile mystery is the edge on which, I believe, Piccinini’s work hinges, finding unknowns in the optics of our potential biologies. All of her creatures seem very human, like possibilities for being human. They embody the abstract foreignness of our anatomy.
I remember discovering a magnifying mirror as a kid and finding that my face, which I thought was smooth and attractive, is, in fact, hideous. Up close, there are hairs, freckles, pores, hidden crackles and folds. Yet, when I look at a regular mirror, that perspective dissolves. Once again, beauty. Since then, I have thought of beauty as a trick of the eye, a gestalt that only happens from far away. I’ve interpreted beauty as smooth shapes in corresponding places. If what I like is a smooth blob of symmetry, is beauty, then, a swath with a pattern? If the obverse is true, is ugliness, then, detail without a pattern? I thought of this while thinking about Piccinini’s creatures, wondering why their tiny hairs, flaps of skin, and uneven freckles are unsettling: is it too much detail without a pattern? Yet, they pull me in with their human-like faces, features and skin. I am unresolved.
In philosophy, beauty has been viewed as both objective and subjective.1 Initially, philosophers saw beauty as purely objective because who could deny that a sunset or a rose is beautiful?1 They thought of beauty as an intrinsic quality of objects themselves.1 Later, philosophers like Hume saw beauty as wholly
subjective, something entirely within the eye of a beholder.1 Other philosophers, like Crispin Sartwell, identified beauty as a relationship between the objective and subjective, where the subject connects with an object and receives pleasure.1 Most philosophers now view beauty as both objective and subjective.1 To view beauty as one thing or the other is too extreme. It doesn’t account for the breadth of our experience.
Kant thought it was essential to view beauty with aesthetic disinterestedness, meaning that when we consider if something is beautiful, we need to decouple it from all other considerations — for example, judging whether Melania Trump is beautiful without considering any aspect of her awfulness. That would be a pure judgment of aesthetic taste. While I believe that beauty, as a quality, exists apart from all other attributes, I think that a disinterested state, as Kant defines it, is impossible—we have a reservoir in our minds of all the things we’ve seen, and this tinges our perception. For example, I am profoundly bored by Melania Trump’s beauty because it is so basic; I’ve seen it too many times, regardless of who she is. I need nuance to stay interested—a new fashion trend, a slight shift in aesthetic combinations. This is where I think Piccinini’s creatures exert fantastic pull; they may be hard to look at, but I’ll never get used to seeing them.
Many philosophers see beauty as a component of perception, and this turns out to be true.1,2 Humans are designed to love certain creatures: We love big eyes, big heads, and chubby bodies — anything that looks like a human baby.2 Many animals do not fit this criterion. In Australia, where Piccinini lives, there is an Ugly Animal Preservation Society, which advocates for animals that do not fit our aesthetic standards.2
For me, the most profound thing Piccinini said during her talk at Hosfelt Gallery is that there is no word in the English language for loving difference. I thought of the philosophy that moved me the most in life, Audre Lorde’s Difference and Survival, and Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, and how these works might be less necessary if humans loved difference more easily.3,4 Or maybe, even if we had a word for it. I thought of all the words we have for hating differences, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and how often we use them.
In Piccinini’s favorite book, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein creates a monster so ugly that humans faint, scream, and vomit when they see him.5 Yet, (spoiler), all the monster wants is to be loved.5 He would settle for only one other creature loving him.5 He asks Frankenstein to create another monster for him to love, and Frankenstein refuses.5 The monster then proceeds to murder Frankenstein’s entire family.5 Oddly, everyone I know who has read this book sides with the monster. We can more easily imagine murdering than we can not being loved. Over the course of writing this piece, I’ve become covered head-to-toe in an allergic rash. I have no idea where it is from, and I have never felt so ugly. Yet, still, I am just a creature in a world with other creatures wanting to be loved.
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Patricia Piccinini: “A tangled path sustains us” @ Hosfelt Gallery through January 28, 2023.
- Sartwell, Crispin, “Beauty,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
- Saini, Angela. “The Code for Cuteness” BBC Earth.” BBC Earth
- Lorde, Audre. The Selected Works of Audre Lorde. National Geographic Books, 2020.
- Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Columbia University Press, 1994.
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Alma Classics, 2014.
About the author: Selby Sohn is a Bay Area artist, writer, and curator who makes objects and actions on the brink of utility. Currently, their work is on a NASA PACE-1 satellite orbiting Earth, and they have exhibited recently at Cone Shape Top, Mercury 20 Gallery, ATA Window Gallery, Root Division, Berkeley Art Center, East Window, and through the City of Palo Alto Public Art Program. Lately, their writing has been published in Third Iris and Journal.fyi.