The Uncomfortable and Confronting World of Patricia Piccinini

Not only does the Melbourne-based artist create a tantalising intensity within her work, she also gently stimulates ethically-charged debate and critical thought.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Patricia Piccinini with her work, Kindred (2018). Photography by H.Walker.

If you feel a little uneasy around Patricia Piccinini’s work, it’s by design. Her hyper-realistic, silicone sculptures (some featuring human hair) portray arresting – sometimes grotesque – hybrid creatures. Although they seem animalistic at first, these life-size visitors always tend to have just enough human elements to be relatable and to elicit empathy, as well as confusion. Puccini herself describes her work as “ethically charged, strongly narrative and emotional”.

One of her more confronting art works, “Kindred” (2018),  is currently showing at Cromwell Place in London as part of the UK/Australia Season – a major cultural collaboration supported by the British Council and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Consisting of a sole figurative sculpture, Kindred depicts a chimera orangutan human mother holding her two offspring; one is half human, and the other is completely human. “When we look at her, we see an orangutan and we know they are endangered because of plantation crops invading their territory, but we’re also aware that genetically we are very close to them,” Piccinini explains.

This work, like so many other genetically blended sculptures from Piccinini, speaks to our treatment of animals, the causation of climate change and the blurring relationship between scientific advancement and the traits that make us human. Arguably, given the current state of the world, Piccinini’s work is now more relevant than ever.

“There are two things that can happen (and I hope do happen) with my work,” she says. “One is that you are pushed away, and then you’re pulled in because you empathise with the creature. This push and pull allows the viewer to have a space in their heads to make up their own minds, to ask themselves what do I feel and think? It’s that dynamic that allows for the potential of a transformative moment,” she continues. “What we’re seeing is not a disconnect between humans and orangutans; what we are seeing is a common ‘animal-ness’. Here is a mother and she is looking after her children, and that’s what we do, we nurture. And so, this work is not about difference, it’s about connection.”

It’s this idea of connection that Piccinini believes is missing in the modern psyche, and could be the key to changing our collective disregard of the natural world. “When we define ourselves as separate from the environment, we see it as something we have to deal with, something to be dominated and put into order so we can all ‘survive’,” she says. “But actually, that’s one of the problems. When you feel you’re separate from [the natural world], it’s hard to make decisions that are helpful, not just for humans, but for the planet’s sake. And I think this is what this work is trying to address.”

Normally, for an exhibition such as this, Piccinini would be in attendance, making sure the installation process runs smoothly. Instead, the Sierra-Leone born artist has been overseeing everything via video calls from the Melbourne house she shares with her husband, artist Peter Hennessy, and their two teenage children. “It’s really disappointing because I love settling in my work and being part of that cultural exchange that happens when work travels across countries. But I’m getting better at it, to be honest.”

It’s one of the many ways the past two years have affected Piccinini and her work, and she admits the pandemic has encouraged her to take stock of her process. “It’s made me think about what’s really important to say at this time. If I’m going to put effort into making something and it’s so hard to make, what is worthy of being said?”

Kindred, 2018, silicone, fibreglass, hair. Edition of 3 plus 1 artists' proofs,. Installed in the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art. Photography courtesy of Patricia Piccinini.

This work elicits fascination and unease, is that intentional?

“Yes, it is, but having said that, there’s a lot of uneasiness which comes simply from seeing the monstrosity of the chimera, which is not human or animal. And then there’s the uneasiness of knowing that we are responsible for the demise of animals. But I’m not telling people what to think or what to do. It’s not a didactic work. It’s a work that allows you to enter it, and [the orangutan mother] actually holds us in the complexity of everything that we feel. And she does this by allowing us to be with her vulnerability. She doesn’t shame us, and in fact she’s very open to us.”

So how does this work relate to your previous work?

“It’s quintessentially ‘Piccinini’; all of my work is about the kind of borders that we put up between animal and human, nature and artifice, right and wrong. So that’s why everything in the work is often blurry; it’s not human, and it’s not animal. Essentially what the work is asking is if these boundaries we create, these definitions of natural and artificial… are they useful anymore? Should they be part of how we understand the world going forward? And so, it’s a very figurative work, but at the same time, it’s actually very conceptual, and it’s very emotional when you are in front of her. She has no clothes on and her eyes really look at you, but not in a  recriminating way, she’s not trying to say you are the culprit, because that doesn’t work with anyone. But she’s showing us that she’s strong because she’s looking after her family. So she elicits our admiration, and at the same time shows that she has strength and vulnerability, which is not easy [to do] without looking pathetic.”

When did you first become interested in that blending of animal and human, and the broader idea of genetic manipulation?

“Pretty early on. I was always interested in the body, and I was really interested in consumer medicine, things like tissue engineering and cloning. And I was always interested in how we understand ourselves and our bodies, especially around how technology changes what we consider to be natural. One of the big salient works I made early on was another ‘mother’ work, called ‘The Young Family’ (2003), which was at the Venice Biennale. She’s a mother who has been cloned for spare parts, and she is looking after her children, also bred for spare parts. [It poses the question], would you sacrifice her children for the sake of your own?”

[Detail] The Young Family, 2003 Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, leather, plywood. Shown here installed at Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art. Photography courtesy of Patricia Piccinini.

What does art mean to you?

“For me, art is a conversation with the viewer, and a chance to create cultural meaning together with other people. The way I see it is, cultural meaning is created by a nexus between the work, the viewer, and my intentions for the work. And they all come together in a time and place, and it’s often in a space made for contemplation where, when you enter this space you seem ready to focus and to consider things on a level that you normally wouldn’t. When you’re walking around the gallery, you’re seeing new things that you normally wouldn’t see in a different context. So, art for me, is collaboratively creating meaning.”

Normally, what is your day like? What’s your work schedule?

“Well, it depends. It’s pretty varied because we’re across so many different medias, but during the pandemic, I’m very interested in keeping my domestic life as stable as possible for my teenage children. With this generation of young people, there’s so much instability in their world right now, so trying to keep the house as stable and as stress-free as possible has been a priority.”

Are you sad when you finish one of your pieces? Is there an element of regret?

“No, I’m excited because I know they’re going to enter the world, and they only exist when they are connected to other people.”

How do you know when a piece is finished?

They normally take months to make and it’s a group effort to make my work, with lots of talented artists in my studio. Usually a piece is really worked, there’s a kind of an element of perfection in it. Every single pour, every single hair, every single surface is laboured over. It can’t get any more perfect.”

How often do you talk to other artists?

“Every day, constantly, but the main one is Peter Hennessy, he just happens to be my life partner. Our life is filled with art, constantly, we wake up talking about it, go to sleep talking about it.”

What was the first piece of art you remember making and feeling proud of?

“Well, I’m a migrant to Australia, and my family boarded the last boat from Italy to Australia in 1972. It took 40 days to arrive, and during those 40 days, the children on the boat had an art exhibition. I can vividly remember my picture of a bird on the wall, alongside everybody else’s, and feeling so proud that it was there. I was seven years old, and was an exhilarating feeling.”

The painting ''Anguish'' (1878) by August Friedrich Schenck. Exhibited Salon, Paris, 1878, no. 2026; purchased on the advice of Alfred Taddy Thompson, for the National Gallery of Victoria, 1880.

And what’s your favourite artwork by someone else?

“Well, my favourites change daily, or hourly, but I’ll give you an old favourite which I tend to return to a lot. It’s an oil painting called ‘Anguish’, made in 1878, by August Schenck, and it’s in the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s a painting of a mother sheep, standing over her dead lamb, and she’s surrounded by all these black crows. There’s quite a lot of ambiguity in it; this little lamb has died and we see her body, her dead body, and we don’t know if the circling crows are grieving, or if they’re there to attack the body and eat it. So, there’s an interesting blend of sadness and threat, and mystery surrounding it. This is a really fantastic instance where we’re understanding that other animals have traits in common with us. When that painting was made, the religious ideas of the time dictated that animals didn’t have souls so this work is special. It’s trying to do and say something, and it really hits a chord with me. I’ve always loved it. I’m always moved by it. I’m always connecting with it.”

What was the worst studio you’ve ever had?

“I’ve been really grateful to have any space at all, so I can’t really say I’ve had a bad studio. I’ve often spent a lot of time on kitchen tables. And in fact, now I’m drawing on the kitchen table during the pandemic, as I’m not going to the studio. I’ll just make any space work, and I’m grateful to have the time to make the work. And at the moment, I have my kids around the table too; I’ve enjoyed that.”

When you’re in your studio, do you have music that you listen to?

“No, I don’t I listen to music. When I’m dreaming up ideas, I don’t listen to anything. I can’t, because that’s brain work and I have to be able to focus. But when I’m doing drawing, then I listen to podcasts, and I’m addicted to the BBC History podcast.”

What was the first work that you sold?

“The first major work of mine that was sold was called ‘Truck Babies’, and that was at the first show that I had at Talona Galleries in 1999. And it was bought by Corbett and Yueji Lyon and that was an exciting moment. They bought it an hour before the opening, so I knew going into it that this work was sold. It was just a really euphoric night, a real affirmation, like it’s going to be okay, people are going to get my work.”

Do you procrastinate?

“Of course I do, and that is why deadlines are so great, because it’s hard to make work if there’s no public to see it and no place for it to go. I think artists really need opportunities to show work. When I have a great opportunity, I pull out all the stops and really work hard for that; there is no room or time for procrastination.”

Let’s talk about your next project, or what you’re working on now?

“Well over the past 18 months, I’ve had shows in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Austria, with another work on its way to Poland for next month. So, there’ll be a lot of work in figuring out where everything will go; guiding that into the physical space over there… from over here. But I’m also doing a lot of drawing on the dining room table with my children, dreaming of other installations I want to create.”