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Patricia Piccinini Makes Tender Art
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Patricia Piccinini Makes Tender Art
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Patricia Piccinini Makes Tender Art
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Conversations
27 September 2018

Patricia Piccinini Makes Tender Art

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Hilary Walker

Nathan Scolaro on meeting Patricia...

Patricia Piccinini gets a lot of people telling her that the work she makes is confronting and difficult to look at. She’s okay with that. The important thing for her is that the viewer is held through their discomfort—that there’s enough intrigue in the work for them to stay and contemplate what they’re feeling. A lot of this holding power comes from the tenderness and vulnerability which underlies so much of Patricia’s hyper-real sculptures. It’s here, in the sweet spot of “curious affection” (which happened to be the title of her most recent exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art) where long-held perceptions are challenged and potentially broken down.

Curious Affection was Patricia’s largest solo show in Australia, and her first major retrospective, featuring new commissions and some of her most famous works from her 20-plus years of art making. Immersive and emotive, wondrous and full of life, the exhibition presented a parallel universe which shone a light on — and even celebrated — the beauty of connection and species diversity.

Born in Sierre Leone in the mid-1960s, just as military coups started to set the country on the path to civil war, Patricia had a turbulent upbringing which ultimately led her and her family to Australia. After graduating with an economics degree, she enrolled at the Victorian College of the Arts where she embarked on a practice of photography, painting and sculpture, and began exploring the boundaries of nature and its simulation. Today, she is one of Australia’s most accomplished artists: she represented the country at the 50th Biennale of Venice in 2003, and set a record for the most-attended contemporary art show in the world in 2016 when she exhibited in Sao Paulo to more than 1.4 million visitors.

At the heart of Patricia’s exploration is a longing to understand the divisions we’ve created between human and other, and how we can connect through all of these superficial layers. I meet her a handful of times, beginning in her Collingwood studio where her design and construction team were busy sewing hair and putting other finishing touches on the silicone-rendered creatures for Curious Affection. As she showed me around, I was moved by the amount of care she brings to the works, and the way she connects with each of them — pointing out nuances in their body language, the ways they invoke creation, and the potential they hold to help each of us become more nurturing and empathetic, particularly in the face of difference.

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

NATHAN SCOLARO: So I wanted to start just by hearing where you’re at. We’re a few months into your exhibition now, well and truly on the other side of that enormous creation period. How are you feeling?

PATRICIA PICCININI: Well I’m feeling very good about the exhibition. It was eight years in the making. Three years of fabrication. And being able to walk through it in real life rather than in my mind is fantastic. Every day I would walk through the exhibition many times in my mind, imagining it. So being able to be with it in the real world is a great feeling. To be honest, I want to be with it all the time. I keep going back.

Really?

Yes. Just to be with it. Having the show at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane has been an incredible chance for me to bring this whole world to life, but I miss it. Sometimes I’ll install a show in a city and just fly in, install it, do the talks and fly out. And I never see it again. But this show I’m very, very sort of viscerally connected to.

Has it been realised in the way it played out in your mind?

Absolutely. When I presented the proposal to Chris Saines, the director of the gallery, it had within it the architectural space, the whole design. And they were able to build it exactly to the drawings. There were no compromises that I had to make. They just did it. And that is a very rare thing! [Laughs].

Such a privilege.

Yes! They did that and more. I was very, very happy.

What’s coming to mind for me is this idea of it being a creation story.

I think you’re right. It is a story about how we see the world. This particular world is about fecundity, which is the potential for life. Much of the show is around reproduction and fertility, the mechanisms for life. Not only physical but emotional too. So the whole place is steeped in ideas to do with birth, maternity, pregnancy, pollination. There are signs that abound like eggs, fruiting bodies, babies, flowers, nurturing. We witness all these things in the exhibition, this world is animated by ideas of creation.

I loved what you said in your speech at the launch of the exhibition. About what happens to a mother during childbirth. Can you share that again?

Yes. So, we know that we pass on a lot of our genetic traits to our children. It’s obvious when we look at them. But what we didn’t know was that children pass things back to us. We know through science now that this happens — that cellular material passes through a boundary that we thought you couldn’t get through, the placenta. Cells travel from the foetus into the mother’s body and they lodge themselves in places like the heart. And we think they do that because pregnancy’s a tough process on the body. And sometimes a mother’s heart can’t cope well, so it needs fortifying. And that’s what these cells do. They’re there to heal the mother’s heart. And those cells also go to other places like the brain. They change the mother’s body. And this is a beautiful thought because we look at this relationship between mother and child in a different way. It’s not all one way. And it also presents the mother as a kind of chimera. She’s made up of not one lot of cells from one individual, but two. Sometimes three or four if she has more children. So that is for me a particularly interesting thought, considering that we want to see ourselves increasingly as individuals in the world. We see ourselves as people that are apart from others, people focused just on themselves because they’re unique and only made up of their own material. And now we know that that’s scientifically not true. And it’s a beautiful metaphor for how we look at difference. We’re not just one contained unique form, that’s not true at all. On a practical, physical level we embrace difference. So how can we do it emotionally? And even intellectually.

That’s what I was thinking, that this shows us how on a bodily level we are always in service to one another. The typical thinking might have been that the mother is in service to the child but this science is also suggesting that the child is serving mother, they’re co-dependent. It reminds me of the trees and this cellular network that happens underground with trees feeding one another.

Nature’s full of these relationships. The mycelium in fungi is this incredible fibrous network that finds water and nutrients and sends it back up to the mushroom when
it wants to reproduce. It also seems that fungi have this symbiotic relationship with trees. The fungi almost mine minerals from rocks that they pass on to trees, and in return the fungi harvest carbohydrates from the photosynthesis that takes place in the trees. So this co-dependency is happening between different organisms, even. Different species. Even between different natural kingdoms.

It’s phenomenal to think how we’ve got this mindset of disconnection when nature says the complete opposite.

That we’re all connected. Yeah.

So let’s keep talking about science and biology ’cause that’s how a lot of people interact with your work, but I don’t think it’s your primary concern.

Well actually I just take science as a given. And I see science as something that creates this very fundamental relationship that defines how we understand ourselves and our relationships with other creatures and our bodies and the environment. So science mediates these relationships. That’s why I’m interested in it. Science is the way we’ve come to
understand the world. In the past it was religion. And before that it was spiritualised mythologies. And now it’s science that’s explaining the world around us and how we relate. And it also is a way of projecting how we want the world to be and how we fear it will end up. Usually it’s one of these two possibilities. So it’s either dystopic or it’s a paradise future. But there is also a space in this dialogue about how the world might be. And that’s the place that I inhabit. Because

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #56 of Dumbo Feather

what I present is not something that I think will happen or should happen, it’s an imagined possibility, and this possibility can be a catalyst for conversation.

And that conversation can then shift the culture.

Yeah. That’s why there’s a lot of ambiguity in my work. So it’s not didactic in that it says, “This is what we should do” and, “We are the culprits.” Or, “This is the future,” and “If you go this way, this will happen.” My work is saying, “Here is a possibility.” By doing that it creates space around these ideas, ideas which are often very dichotomous. And in that space the viewer can bring their own history and understandings and make their own story, their own dialogue. Together — me, the artwork and the viewer — we make meaning. And this meaning contributes to a more nuanced, open-ended culture. It’s not myopic. We can imagine a way of being that is not prescribed by a few people that dominate the discourse, which is the way science works. If you look at medical innovation, it has got fantastic potential to make everybody’s lives better. But at the same time it can be compromised by people in power that are interested in short-term profits or short-term outcomes, like, “How can we make medication that people become addicted to?” It’s that vulgar at times.

So the work is a response to a culture that is narrowing who we are. And you’re actually looking to nature and the wild and seeing the incredible diversity that the natural world is all about. We need diversity for evolution, right? We know that.

Yeah.

That’s what I felt you are posing to us. The importance of diversity. ’Cause we’ve been part of a culture for too long now that has encouraged one way of being in the world, one kind of person. And we’ve all tried to become that…

Idealised person. Yes. To no good end. And in fact my work is inspired by nature. By looking at nature we can see that everything is related. So the work is about relationships. And if we can connect with these ideas maybe we can have a moment of transformation in ourselves. And if we have that moment of transformation this can empower us to leave the gallery and act. That’s what’s important. So let me give an example. The work, Kindred. We look at her. We know that orangutans will be extinct very soon. And so the immediate response might be to feel shame or anger. Because it is our fault. We’re clearing rainforest to plant palm oil. And anger because this is a short-term goal making a few people wealthy. It’s really not benefiting most people. Because even the palm oil is a horrible substance in commercialised food that’s not good at all for our health. So that’s what you might think and feel when you see orangutans. But in this work what we see is an orangutan mother who’s a chimera. She’s a human-orangutan. And she has one child which is even less animal, more human. Then her second child is completely human. So we look at her and think, Oh, well she’s kind of like us. We can see the humanity in her. And then we look at her longer and think, But she’s different, in fact she’s different from her children. But we recognise the relationship between them. It is familiar. And we feel that. And then we realise that the work is not about external difference — which is the difference between us and other animals that we use to justify erecting barriers and driving them to extinction for profit. We realise that this family, this amazing family is completely connected. And that we are all also connected. And this connection is a beautiful thing. She is an amazing expression of nature, even this mediated nature. And she’s valuable. And it’s from that more affirming place that we are able to act. It makes me think of Mary Shelley—she was an abolitionist. So she didn’t believe in slavery—the slavery that made her generation of people wealthy. And because she was an abolitionist she didn’t eat sugar.

Oh.

Because slaves made sugar. Now eating sugar is a small thing in someone’s life. But it’s hugely symbolic. And then when she comes to write Frankenstein this whole narrative of the master-slave informs how we relate to the monster who is presented as the slave. Like, completely controlled by the master-father. So I see this beautiful connection between these two stories — Shelley and sugar and Frankenstein and Kindred and palm oil. This idea of how can we treat slaves or nature as badly as we do because we don’t see them as human.

So it’s only until we can humanise the other that we are driven to empathy?

Well no. Because… well, almost. Because human is at the top of the hierarchy. Only when we destroy these barriers and we see ourselves as connected to other animals and ask, “How do we fix this environmental problem? How do we fix this inequality that’s driven many other
species to extinction?” — it’s only then that we can go forward with other animals.

We have to see the animal within us.

Correct. We see the animal within us. We connect to that part of ourselves. And we value other ways of being.

I’m going to go back to a thought that I had just before when you mentioned this beautiful co-creation that happens between the viewer, you and the artwork. Are you privy to what’s happening in that space of meaning-making, do you have a relationship to it? I guess I’m asking do you know how the work is being received, and does it matter?

Well it does matter. To me it really matters. But I don’t have control over it. Although I can do certain things. I don’t believe in the death of the author. I lived through that—that whole “nothing matters” discourse, anything can be interpreted however the viewer wants. My belief when it comes to art-making is that it’s a conversation. And I put forward the work and that work has a particular dynamic. And I leave space for the viewer to enter the conversation. And then they go out and continue the conversation in their families, in their workplace, their creative output. So I can control some things. For example I make the work with what could be described as a kind of repulsiveness, almost verging on abject nature. I present something that’s uncomfortable for many people. So what happens is that they’re pushed away from it. They go, “It’s too much! Can’t go there. Don’t like it.” But at the same time it also manages to bring them in. It’s intriguing. It’s different. Sometimes it’s kind of cute. And there’s a lot of beauty. And there’s obvious care in it. Sometimes it depicts things that we value—like connection, nurturing and maternity. So essentially what happens is that the viewer’s pushed away and then brought in. And a space opens up in the viewer to actually be able to say, “What do I think? What do I believe? How do I feel about this? Why do I feel this way?” And that space rarely happens in the world. Because we’re often told what to think, how to feel, how to behave.

What I would love the viewer to feel is an emotion we don’t have a name for: a warming up to something that they originally were uncomfortable with, or averse to. And that is also something that rarely happens in this world.

In fact we’re going the other direction. Ideas are being more and more reinforced through social media and culture in general. We don’t have to be open to things that are difficult, challenging, not pretty, not easily consumable. We can very easily ignore or hide from these things, and find a safe place where our worldview is validated.

It’s so profound what you’re saying. Because I know for me personally the most growth comes when I am challenged, when my worldview is challenged, but when I also bring an openness and curiosity to why I’m being challenged. It’s like they’re the two ingredients for this beautiful thing to emerge. Two very difficult things I should add: being challenged and being open to inquiry.

That’s how I hope my work operates. It’s important to me that I don’t dictate what people should think or do. Because they are the best people to do the work, they have their own knowledge and histories and abilities to process the work and then go out and do things in our world that need doing. Like addressing climate change. We need to have a different relationship to the nature around us. And it’s becoming more and more crucial that it happens soon.

It seems like you are a hopeful person.

Yeah I am sanguine. And I think I have to be. Because if I wasn’t it would be overwhelming.

Where do you go to be challenged, and to experience the kind of transformations we’ve been talking about?

Well I’m challenged when I’m out in nature. I’m incredibly fearful but also inspired by other animals. But at the same time I wouldn’t say I am an adventurer. I’m just a normal person that often feels quite disempowered when it comes to where the world is going. I can’t go out and save the forests by myself. I can’t have a relationship with different kinds of animals in my everyday life. In fact that’s probably not even desirable. But I do think a lot about nature and how important it is to us and our children. That’s why I’m interested in how we define nature. And how that definition is changing. Because the definition that we have isn’t useful anymore. That idea of nature as pristine and untouched by humankind, that is a very flat definition that allows humans to exploit it and use it as a resource. So how can we come up with another definition that is more workable in terms of sustaining the plants and animals that are alive today? Because now if we want to see birds of prey we can go into the city and go to high rises. They’re up there. You know, feeding on pigeons. And that’s nature too. Nature changes. So the definition needs to change with that. We need another way of understanding nature if we’re going to have any of it left!

You touched on this before but I want to talk about beauty. My experience of your art isn’t one of confrontation or disgust that a lot of people have. I feel the beauty straight away. And I am drawn to what I see is tenderness and love in these beings. So I wanted to ask you, when I say the word “beauty,” what comes to mind for you?

Well like you I don’t think the work I make is that shocking or grotesque. But I recognise it does have an aspect of that for some people, as does nature. I mean being out close to a walrus, that’s intense.

Yeah! [Laughs].

They’ve got bad breath for one. Fish breath. Like intense! And they’re powerful bodied, they look different from us. I’m not sure you would want to cuddle up to a walrus. But they’re beautiful as well. To look at the form, how they’ve completely adapted to the environment and their amazing cultural relationships and connections. And that’s it. For me, beauty is connection. A way of being in the world which is open-hearted and nurturing and accepting.

It’s a quality.

Yeah. Because everything can be beautiful. I can’t say that the peacock is any more beautiful than a wedge-tailed eagle.

But has that been a process for you? Because what you’re saying is that you are
separated from the superficial world which tells us what beauty is. So has that been a process of undoing in your life? Or have you always seen the world that way?

Well I think I’ve always seen the world that way.

It was something you developed in your childhood?

Well I was born in Sierra Leone in an expatriate family at the start of the civil war. And then I was a migrant from then on. First to Italy and then to Australia. So there’s a lot of not being rooted and not feeling connected to people in one space because I had to leave. And my parents came from a pretty traumatised background so it was difficult for them to connect to me. So my way of understanding the world is a bit traumatised by not having a very secure attachment to my family and being a migrant at the same time. I mean I think I’m a pretty high-functioning individual but my childhood does inform the way I view the world. So my desire for connection comes from not being connected, not being attached well. To place or people. And I don’t think I’m unique in that. I think a lot of people experience a childhood where the parent is absent. And neglectful. So that’s why things like relationships and connections, they matter to me. And through science we understand that we are connected to every other living organism. Our cells divide the way yeast does. We share DNA—96 percent of our DNA—with other primates. We also live in a time where we can see the body as very changeable. And editable. Bodies aren’t definite anymore. They’re not final. You can change them. This morning I was reading about cures for cancer using the immune cells that are inside tumours that are not functioning properly. I mean, amazing!

Wow! Wow.

This is our future. Possible future. We can change the body at that level. And so what does that mean to us? What does this changing definition of the body and of our relationships mean to us? And how will we use it in a way that can sustain us? In a good way.

Mm absolutely. We shouldn’t be scared of this change, but see the potential it holds.

Yeah. At the same time I’m terrified that Trump is going to escalate some kind of ego war. I mean technology brings so many possibilities. And I guess it’s up to us as a community to not allow people like Trump to dictate the culture. It’s for us to say, well, we are connected to the people that this bomb might drop on. And what is it about our bodies that we want to hold onto? Like, do we want to hold onto a sense of accepting difference or do we want our bodies to become more and more homogenised? Is that what we want? Because that is possible. And CRISPR will be part of birth within the next decade.

CRISPR?

It’s a gene editing technology. So we’ll be able to go in and change the way the baby expresses different genes. For different properties. It’d be great to get rid of cystic fibrosis. But we could also get rid of, I don’t know, being short. Which is not a pathology. So these are things that we need to talk about. When I do show my work to scientists they’re often quite taken aback because they think, Oh this is not how we changed the world through science. We’re altruistic, we want to make the world a better place but not like this. This is an aberration. We don’t want you even making this work and suggesting it. I get that a lot. But I’m saying, what is our relationship to the nature that we change? What’s it going to be? Is it going to be a loving one where we nurture and are responsible for it? Or is it going to be one where we use it as a resource? Like we already do. And they’re important questions. They’re not easy questions. And I’m also asking us to look at the relationships we’ve created as a society. The roles we play. So if we take for example The Couple, the bear chimeras in the caravan. What we see there is a relationship between a female and a male which is not one that we typically see in the media. The male of the species is resting on the female’s shoulder. And for a strong, dominant-looking male to be depicted in this restful way—not active and not vigilant and not dominating—is very rare. And we need to see this. Because most representations of masculinity are very, very rigid. And destructive!

We can’t have males thinking that they can’t rest and trust and close their eyes. And be nurtured and be nurturing.

The Carrier

Kindred

You’re an incredibly observant person I would assume. The way you capture body language in the works, all of these beautiful nuanced details that we feel. Are you conscious of that?

Well, every one of us has an incredibly sophisticated understanding of body language. We all do. We developed it as babies. We can read the body in our culture instantly. You can tell so many things at a subconscious level about someone just by the way they walk, by the way they hold their body. The relationship between people. Which one has more power? Which one is subservient? All of these things we take in immediately. And these are all signs. And I use these signs to communicate. So every gesture is considered and thought about. Like for example with The Carrier. You have this big bear guy. Bear chimera. And he’s got a really big gut because bears put on over a hundred kilos when they hibernate. And he is carrying this woman. So this relationship, it seems like a hierarchical one because he’s carrying her. Then we look at him and he isn’t clothed so it reinforces that relationship because he’s not as imbued with culture. But we look at her and she’s got her arms open, her palms open. And we read that immediately. We can see that she has an open demeanour. In yoga this is a receiving pose. And her arms are then mirrored by his arms underneath. You may not be able to articulate it but you see that mirroring, that togetherness. You see that they have a connection. They’re physically connected ’cause they’re touching but they’re also looking in the same direction. So they have this psychological confluence. And yet even though we can see these connections, we know that we don’t treat other animals in the world in this kind of imagined equitable way. So we’re left really wondering what their relationship is. We’d like to think that it is equal. That it is amicable. That it is nurturing. We’d like to think that. But because of how we understand the world to be, we’re sceptical.

And fear also plays a role here. Because the typical paradigm tells us to fear this beastly bear creature, right?

And fear is something that stops connection. If you fear, you will not connect. In the past I think a fear of other animals has been very appropriate. That’s where our fight or flight response comes from. It’s been necessary for survival. But now, we are the ultimate predator. We’ve initiated the anthropocene. We have had so much impact on the world that the environment is changing. So given who we’ve become, fear doesn’t seem useful anymore. It just doesn’t seem useful. Because now fear is playing out in all of these other parts of our lives. Fear of the other. Fear of abandonment. Fear of being vulnerable. So the viewer wonders whether they will be emotionally safe if they make a connection. And that’s a big thing. And that’s something I try to address as well. Because when you make a work that is very didactic, the viewer becomes fearful. It can be a sort of trauma. And when you have trauma you can’t think properly. So I hope that’s one of the things my work can do is put the viewer in an emotional situation and hold them. Hold their response. Support them in whatever they might feel. And that relates to the real reason why these works are somewhat mythological. Like, in the literal sense. They are myths. And I feel as though if I did make works which were more documentary-style, I wouldn’t be able to hold the viewer in it because it would be too overwhelming an emotional response. Myths allow us to connect to something emotionally without becoming overwhelmed by it.

So interesting.

Because when I look at deforestation images I am absolutely enraged. I’m enraged. And no one can hold me in that. And that emotional response is totally justified. Because when you look at these images they are about a violence enacted on the environment. And violence begets violence. So I am angry. But I can’t go out and act if I’m angry. ’Cause that’s coming from trauma. I can only go out and act if my body is calm and I can look at the issue and connect with it emotionally and conceptually and be held in it, then I can go out and act without being in this heightened, cortisol-affected state. And I want to act. That’s why myths in the past have been so powerful in our culture, because you could connect to ethically-difficult ideas emotionally. We need to be able to do that. We need to be present and clear- thinking to be able to do the work that needs to be done.

See Patricia’s next exhibition Patricia Piccinini and Joy Hester: Through love… at TarraWarra Museum of Art from 24 November 2018 to 11 March 2019. Through love… presents two exceptional Australian artists and their shared explorations of love and intimacy. It features a selection of works focused on the coupling of two entities, manifested in several formations: mother and child, child and animal, male and female and animate and inanimate.

This article is part of our wilding campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas for re-connecting with the wild and protecting what you love, purchase Issue 56—”Embracing the Wild” or subscribe.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Hilary Walker

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