patricia piccinini’s “atlas”

certainly the most photographed object in our booth (and perhaps art fair-saturated miami last week), atlas, elicited a lot of nervous laughter, crude comments and averted eyes.  it also provoked the most questions, emotional reactions and arguments about meaning.


atlas is an abstract work by patricia piccinini, an artist famous for her hyper-realistic sculptures of mutated, often grotesque creatures.  piccinini’s naturalistic style of working — the uncannily lifelike details — freckles, body hair and blood vessels that seem to course just below the skin’s surface — force us to think of her sculptures as sentient and make us to relate to them in a way we never could a figure made of stone or bronze.  the care and sensitivity that goes into their making speaks of tenderness and empathy on the part of the artist, which is perceived by and transferred to the viewer.


and the booted feet?  their sleek, machined perfection acts as a foil to the pink fleshiness. the more futuristic and artificial they look, the more living and “real” the creature seems.


but in this piece, piccinini also subverts the plausibility of the synthetic tissue with the improbable form of the figure.  if it’s real, this being is horrifically deformed.

the title, atlas, suggests that the creature struggles under the weight of a great burden.  it’s bowed and misshapen by strain.  the artist calls it a “body folded in on itself.”  it’s careworn.  beaten down.  demoralized.


when i look at it, i can’t stop thinking about josé donoso’s masterpiece, the obscene bird of night, and how in that novel, physical deformity represents our primal fear of alienation and isolation…  the terror of loss of self-identity that happens when you’re rejected by society.

viewers carefully scrutinize atlas, intrigued and anxious about moles with their unsightly sprouting hairs or indecently puckering orifices.  perhaps these were particularly unnerving in a city of smooth, tanned and publicly-exposed flesh.


the power of piccinini’s work is in its contrasts.   it is repulsive… but you find you can’t look away.  it’s obscene… but at the same time poignant and oddly beautiful.  it’s monstrous… but more than anything, human.   that’s what’s so disturbing about atlas…  it’s a mirror in which we recognize our frailties and imperfections.  and that can be terrifying.