Walking around Patricia Piccinini’s Melbourne studio, we could be on a tour at the Natural History Museum. ‘And here we have a pollinator,’ says the artist, pointing out a long-limbed creature from whose body hangs a mane of thick hair. She stops at a bulbous flower, pausing for effect. ‘What’s growing in there? How does it reproduce itself?’
We stroll towards a naked orangutan, carrying her young. Piccinini whispers, as if afraid to disturb the fauna, ‘Look at her incredibly strong back and magnificence of her physique. We can see her strength and fortitude.’ Each one of these beasts looks real, with blue veins beneath pink skin and fine wisps of individual hairs that line their legs. Except. Except. Nothing is quite right.
The Pollinator, as the artwork is called, uses its elongated arms to reach into an opening in a pair of legs, much like a gaping vagina or a marsupial’s pregnant pouch. The orangutan looks more human than monkey, with bee-stung lips and long ginger locks. These weird warts-and-all sculptures imagine a world where genetic engineering has gone wild. Using silicone, human hair, and an army of assistants, Piccinini’s creations include a baby with an elephant trunk and a girl covered in fur. Unsurprisingly, they have captured the public imagination. Piccinini, if not Australia’s most famous artist, is at least its most popular.
In 2016, Patricia Piccinini: Consciousness in Rio de Janeiro was the second most attended exhibition in the world, attracting 1.4 million people. Last year, she was part of Hyper Real, a major group exhibition at Canberra’s National Gallery. Now her vast solo exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane has just drawn to a close, after a wildly popular run.
Such success could go to one’s head. Yet Piccinini is modest and thoughtful, with long ash-coloured hair, a clear pale complexion, and a calming demeanour that makes her appear decades younger than her 50-plus years. As a mother to two, she is also maternal. Still, she’s not afraid to address life’s messier aspects. Curious Affection, the exhibition in GOMA, is about motherhood, fecundity and sex. ‘All of this work is incredibly sexual,’ she shrugs. ‘Not in a pornographic way. I mean life is sexual. It is vulva like.’
One example is a forest of silicon flowers which look ‘like ovaries’. Another are three male human-eagle creatures with pouches, guarding one fat egg each. In The Young Family, one of her better known works, a litter of hybrid human-pigs suckle at their weary mother’s teats.
Born in Sierra Leone to an English teacher mother and Italian construction worker father, Piccinini grew up in Canberra. When studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, she learnt to draw in anatomy museums and found herself fascinated by the specimens, many with tumours and malformations, in jars. For the first time Piccinini was ‘seeing the body as beautiful inside rather than frightening or disgusting. And that opened me up to think: How do we relate to the body in our society?’
Much of her work touches on her ambiguous feelings towards science. The sculptures are uncanny, and touch a nerve, precisely because they are rooted in reality. And that reality grows ever closer with each scientific breakthrough.
Last year, pig embryos were injected with human cells, making headlines as the first ever human-animal chimeras. The foetuses, developed in California, were allowed to gestate inside sows for four weeks before being terminated. ‘It’s frightening but it also changes the way we understand the body. It might mean we can grow replacement parts for people so we can save life,’ notes Piccinini, adding: ‘But I think we need to discuss the ethical side of this.’ In her studio, there are not only cross-species creatures, but hybrids that have inanimate objects – a pair of cowboy boots or a motorcycle helmet – fused as part of their physique. ‘It wasn’t imaginable fifty years ago but now it’s commonplace to find a human body with parts that aren’t human through medicine: artificial legs, knees, calves, heart,’ she says. ‘They’re growing skin. So… a body that is part boot isn’t so crazy.’
Piccinini has faced backlash, however. Surprisingly, more for the perceived grotesqueness of her creations rather than the moral questions they raise. In 2013 her hot air balloon Skywhale, commissioned for Canberra’s centenary celebrations, became one of Australia’s most debated (and mocked) artworks. Many felt the gigantic balloon – shaped like a whale/turtle/bird with ten great swinging tits – was a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
Over a decade later, Piccinini is still upset about the criticism: ‘It felt really awful,’ she admits. But she stands by her whale in the sky. ‘Ten breasts are confronting. At the same time breasts are created to nurture young. I breastfed my kids for two years,’ she says. More than that, Piccinini believes we are too often put off by the more uncomfortable elements of reproduction. ‘Childbirth is sexual. It is,’ she insists matter-of-factly. ‘Having a giant thing coming down your vagina.’
Her work has led her to take solace in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the book Piccinini sympathises with the monster. The fault is Frankenstein’s for rejecting, not to mention regretting, his own creation. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake. She asserts her monsters are created with ‘an open heart, with care. I don’t make them to gross people out. People do dismiss them because they don’t like the forms because they’re scary or whatever. That does happen but that’s not my intention.’ Overriding all this is a desire to make us, as humans, rethink our creationist stories. To signify that procreation is in itself a miracle, the great machine of life cranking into action once more.
Reflecting this, the GOMA exhibition becomes a pilgrimage. It starts with myriad sculptures of small children. But it ends in a room where a chimera couple – half-bear, half-human, with great hairy feet and long nails – take shelter in a caravan. In this cocoon, among the pots and the pans, they lie prostate on the bed, possibly after love-making. The female tenderly clutches her man’s head to her shoulder, drawing him closer, as she stares up into the night. It is quiet moment. Of peace and of hope.
Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection runs at GOMA in Brisbane until 5 August