“It’s some kind of weird exhibition.”
That’s the message I spy out of the corner of my eye that an older man, maybe in his 50s, types exasperatedly on his phone, before hitting send. He’s not entirely wrong – we’re standing in front of one of Patricia Piccinini’s most renowned works, The Young Family (2002), which depicts a sculpted dog-human hybrid creature, as her young brood of puppies suckle at her breasts. The effect is initially more than a little disturbing, with the unnamed creature (or ‘chimaera’ as Piccinini prefers to refer to it) falling squarely into the uncanny valley, with its humanoid appendages, skin tone and body hair, yet born with a ‘monstrous’, bestial face and anatomy, resulting in fear and loathing.
Yet, if one spends a little more time gazing at the creature, one might notice and focus on the undeniably human characteristics of it, in particular, her facial expression. Exhausted, perhaps from freshly giving birth to her brood of puppies, one easily likens it to a new human mother after hours of labour, and begins to find a connective thread amidst the clear physical differences. It is in this moment, this act of choosing to relate and engage rather than shirk away, that we realise – we are not alone in this world, and that we share the planet with countless other creatures besides the human species, all worthy of co-existing and living a life as rich as the other.
The Young Family, and a carefully curated selection of pieces from across Piccinini’s body of work, is currently on display at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, as part of the exhibition ‘Patricia Piccinini: We Are Connected’, as weird as it is wonderful. Drawing from surrealism, science fiction and the natural environment, an encounter with a work by Piccinini is an invitation to be a part of something bigger, to find one’s self at the intersection of art and science, past and future, human and animal, a liminal, fantastical space where anything is possible.
“I’m interested in making art about the world around us, and depicting the realities and dreams of contemporary life, and the relationship between the artificial technological world of people and the natural world,” says Piccinini. “That relationship has never been more important than it is today, as we ask ourselves how do we share a world with other life forms around us, and what are our responsibilities to that.”
At the very beginning of the exhibition, the walls swathed in green, visitors will come face to face with an orang utan-human hybrid holding her young close to her, in a work titled Kindred (2018). ‘Orang Utan’ translates directly to ‘forest person’, and raises the idea that the Borneo people and Sumatrans who first discovered the creature saw them not as beasts, but as denizens of the jungles, themselves caretakers and overseers of the land they inhabit. Moreover, similar to The Young Family, the creature in Kindred is a mother protecting and caring for her offspring, and one begins to realise that regardless of the objective differences between human and animal, there are plenty of similarities in our physiological makeup and psychological drives, and begin to question – what does it mean to be human?
“My role as an artist is as a communicator and catalyst for conversation,” says Piccinini. “Living in an age of the anthropocene, where human activity now has a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems, there are no more environments untouched by human hands, and you can even find microplastics floating in Antarctica. Humans are not separate from nature, we are urban citizens but still living in the natural world, and we must learn how to become more inclusive in the way we live and relate to nature. That is why I create these chimaeras, to make it difficult to see where the human elements end and the animal begins. When we see ourselves as a part of nature, then we can see that caring for nature is caring for ourselves.”
Growing up in Canberra, Australia, and now based in Melbourne, Piccinini has been dwelling in urban spaces for as long as she can remember, yet has always been interested in this idea of connection to nature, as distant as she might be. One of her earliest works, Truck Babies (1999) came about when she was on a road trip, a more innocent time before the climate crisis came to the fore, and she began to see great big ‘petrol-guzzling trucks’ as massive whales, imagining petrol stations as feeding grounds where they would give birth to truck babies. In a similar vein, machinery, technology and mechanics still feature heavily in her work, such as in Hunter, Black Velvet and Highlander (2015), three sculptures that imagine motorcycles as organic creatures, able to birth young. The three creatures here resemble cute, brightly-coloured tadpoles, reminiscent of how in real life, babies too are designed for adorability such that parents will be endeared and care for them. Cuteness is and always has been a survival tactic.
“Cities in Australia are some of the most metropolitan in the world, and like most people, I struggled to find a kind of meaningful connection to nature growing up,” says Piccinini. “Intellectually, I understood that we need other animals to make up that diverse ecosystem, but in the city, it became hard to see natural spaces, and there was this divide between the urban and the wilderness, that places such as the Bush were not for us. But we have to realise that nature is all around us, and that cities too exist within nature – we must recognise that when bushfires happen, there is a loss of diversity, and that species are dying out, and we have to act before it’s too late.”
Of course, it is still humanoids that feature most prominently in Piccinini’s work, perhaps owing to how the closer to human these creatures are, the bigger the emotional and visceral reaction we have of them. Time and time again, Piccinini subverts our expectations of what a monster is, taking inspiration from literature such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and imagining what it might be like if we chose not to discriminate or abandon the ‘monstrous’, and instead embrace them as one of our own, showing care, love and empathy. In The Welcome Guest (2011), a child (modelled after Piccinini’s own daughter) stands on a bed, and is approached by a sloth-human hybrid bearing terrifyingly long claws. Yet the child smiles and seems to welcome this ‘stranger’, itself an immaculately crafted piece, with glorious fur running down its back. Behind, a peacock perches on the bedframe, seemingly out of place. Yet when one thinks about it, a peacock is a creature that has evolved over the years to perfect its depiction of beauty for survival, and the presence of sloth chimaera, peacock and human girl in one space, the safety of the bedroom, feels like a perfect culmination of Piccinini’s plea for co-existence.
“I worry for young people – my own children these days are totally terrified of the world, and all they want to do is to disengage and disconnect. They tell me ‘oh mum, we’re not going to have kids of our own – it’s too much,” says Piccinini. “They’re terrified because they can’t do anything except go on climate change marches and protest for change. But the people in power aren’t doing what needs to be done, and we’re not cherishing these non-human animals with value, at least, until they end up on the critically endangered list and by then it’s too late. As humans, as relational creatures, we’re hardwired to connect, and by experiencing my art, I hope that they learn to connect to non-human creatures and develop that sense of empathy.”
Across her body of work, one of the recurring themes Piccinini seems to hover back to is the idea of motherhood and care for young. Even in the work The Comforter (2010), which depicts a young, unusually hirsute girl cradling an amorphous, fleshy being in her arms, we imagine that there is a look of love on her face, able to bridge the gap beyond differences in species, and optimistic in its belief that we can and must learn to care for each other, and develop that sense of empathy that will in time, save us all. Meanwhile, in The Bond (2016), a similar idea occurs where we see an adult woman cradling a hybrid chimaera, combining a human, a pig and the sole of a shoe in her arms. It is a tender moment, and surrounded by a field imagined ‘plants’ that grow organs instead. of flowers, one visualises a future where all creatures great and small live in harmony, a ‘perfect’ world where technology and nature co-habit.
Fans of hard science fiction might scoff at her work, considering that it doesn’t ‘make sense’, where there is no survival advantage whatsoever for these creatures to have evolved this way. But Piccinini’s goal isn’t to be scientifically accurate, but to activate one’s imagination, to surprise with vulnerability rather than hardiness, and to make us care for these hapless, soft-bodied chimaeras. Not to mention – Piccinini is also having fun with these creations, almost always inserting a streak of wild humour, or tender sexuality.
“My work, like surrealism, is based on dream-like situations. It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s always got this slightly sexual, disturbingly cute, and innate joyfulness to it,” says Piccinini. “I’m not against intellectual or rational thought, but that’s not what drives my work, or even what drives science. I think most things are driven by emotional connections, or the imagination. So if someone sees these creatures, no matter how outrageous they are, it might cause them to go back to their own life and use their imagination, and inspire creativity in other people. It’s about being open to what’s possible, not shutting things down.”
“Sure, I could have made a show, that is very ‘real’, but I’m not here to depict ‘reality’. Using silicone, the goal is to make ‘real’ things that don’t exist. There are people out there who want to do the ‘real’ and do it very well – documentary makers and photographers who capture the horror of bushfires, and how the animals wither, become ragged, and keel over. But I don’t want my work to shut people down, because I am already terrified, and I think it’s more difficult to form a connection when you’re coming from a place of fear or violence. I want people to connect from a place of inspiration, because that gives you the impetus to act in the world.”
With the advent of xenotransplantation, where replacement organs are grown in non-humans, as a means of providing additional parts for humans, we ourselves face a future where we may well become chimaeras ourselves, part human part animal, or part human part machine. In the future, we will no longer have fully ‘natural bodies’, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes reality. All the more then, we need to learn to care for those different from us, lest we allow the divisions to tear the world asunder, warring instead of promoting peace and care.
“I think the world would be different if we appreciated non-human animals more. A lot of the problems stemmed from the Industrial Revolution, where we told ourselves we’re distinct from nature, and that the world became a resource we could harvest and use, and that split us further from nature,” says Piccinini. “We told ourselves we were more than just specks of dust, and that fed into an egocentric perception of the world around us. And so we have to change that mindset, and to redefine our relationship with nature. We have to go forth with humility, to acknowledging and valorising other animals and what they do for the world, and re-learn how connected we are.”
At the heart of Piccinini’s work is one simple theme – love. From the love she bestows upon her creations, to the love she hopes they will inspire in us, towards each other and the greater world around us, the chimaeras are here to humble us, and remember that we all play a part in making this world a better place, and ensuring its liveability and the survival of all species.
“All relationships are codependent. What we want is to have a co-operative relationship with the world, by acknowledging our vulnerability, and that we’re not in control here, we are not necessarily the superior, dominant species, and that we have a role in fixing not destroying the world around us,” says Piccinini. “We want our relationship to the world to evolve, to edge away from what the Industrial Revolution said, that we were special, but no, now we must develop a more equitable and shared outlook on the world.”
In one of the final pieces in ‘We Are Connected’, we view a video titled ‘We Travel Together (2021), where a woman finds an echidna-like creature in an abandoned city. She picks it up, and decides to go out into the Australian bush and return it to its rightful habitat. Along the way, she encounters even more fantastical plant and animal species, and we come to realise just how diverse and rich the world around us is, filled with incredible lifeforms beyond our wildest dreams, if only we learn to connect. When she finally does return the creature, it is a bittersweet end to their relationship, but an acknowledgement that she will and has cared for it, to protect it and ensure its survival.
Since The Young Family shocked visitors to the Venice Biennale in 2003, the world has transformed immeasurably in the last 19 years. Science has advanced to new heights, the world has undergone several possibly cataclysmic changes, and a new generation is fast entering adulthood. Fear is all around us, but we no longer want to be afraid. We want to approach the world with intrigue and curiosity, to dare to come closer and condition our body to become empathetic and relational. We must find in ourselves, the curious affection for the beings around us, to learn care, and in our encounters with these chimaeras, to meditate on these scenarios and the sheer number of possibilities Patricia Piccinini offers us, and how we might relate to them. Don’t just look at it as a ‘weird exhibition’ – stay a while, and allow yourself to see the similarities beyond the differences, and leave changed.
“Ultimately, I do hope that my work is transformational, in that people have transformational moments when they walk through this exhibition. It’s hard to have that space to think about these ideas in our lives, and I want to use my work to address this right now, to provoke an empathetic response,” Piccinini concludes.
Patricia Piccinini: We Are Connected runs from 5th August 2022 to 29th January 2023 at the ArtScience Museum. Tickets and more information available here
Find out more about Patricia Piccinini here