Your first encounter with one of Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures is likely to be unnerving.
There’s the initial start at not being alone in a room when you thought you were, followed by confusion as to what exactly it is you’re seeing. Next you’re awestruck. Really, what is this? How are they made? What does this mean? You might be freaked out. Even appalled. There’s a good chance your reaction will actually be physical—primitive, visceral.
Now stop and think for a moment and you’ll realize that very shortly after coming upon the young girl and her avian familiar, studying them, puzzling over them, you quit considering what you were looking at as sculpture, and thought of them as beings… sentient. “Look at her fingernails.” “I’m dying to touch his hair.” “He’s weird… but also cute.” “What are they doing together?” “Why are they in there? What’s their story?”
You aren’t surprised to have me tell you that Piccinini is fascinated by science. You picked up references to genetic mutation, natural selection, hybridization and biotechnology. Perhaps you thought about the possibility that one of these creatures could be a representation of a humanoid branch that Homo sapiens crowded out. Or that one tiny genetic mutation a few millennia ago and this thing that seems so strange to you now, might in fact be exactly what you’d look like today.
Perhaps the most frequently recurring motif in Piccinini’s work is fecundity. Her work is replete with images of infants, mothers and children, wombs, creation myths, reproduction in epic proportion. One of the first things she’s done to you today is situate you in the midst of a field of white blossoms—surrounding you with thousands of them.
Botany 101: flowers are the sexual organs of plants. These blooms are like none you’ve seen in a meadow, garden, vase or still life painting. Branching from a central body the size of a human heart, but shaped like that very early fertility figure we call the Venus of Willendorf, are appendages that could just as easily be the hood of a King Cobra (a reference to fertility) or the head of a hummingbird (an important pollinator).
Standing in the field there’s an overwhelming sense of prolificacy. It’s unclear if these flowers spread and multiplied sexually, through a massive production of seeds; asexually, via some extensive underground network; or through human intervention. You’re only sure that what you’re in the midst of—what happened here and that you’re now a part of—is something very unusual.
Realize too that most of Piccinini’s creatures are children. Babies of all species—hyenas, even alligators—are endearing. Sure, Piccinini needs that “cuteness” to engage you: a Chimera made up of an adult platypus, worn out cowboy boot and gnarly old man would likely fully repel you rather than create the uneasy attraction Piccinini so successfully employs.
But her fixation on childhood, fecundity and reproduction speaks more importantly to the idea of potential. Reproduction is possibility. Babies embody the future. We look at a child and we feel hope.
In Unfurled, Piccinini places a bird on a young girl’s shoulder to create a relationship between a human and a signifier of nature. The owl doesn’t just perch, it wraps its wing around her in a gesture of protection—an embrace. The relationship is gentle and intimate. It speaks to our desire for a healthy relationship to nature in spite of our fouling of the planet and the human proclivity to drive other species to extinction.
Relationships are central in all of this work—whether to nature, between humans and other species, or between people. Piccinini reveals moments of intimacy and vulnerability, and in so doing, gives voice to the idea that research has proven over and over—attachment is critical to survival. In the stressful, dangerous, and frightening place this world is, safety can be found in intimacy. But opening yourself to intimacy can also be terrifying.
While Piccinini’s creations are strange and sometimes unsettling, they do not threaten. I would argue that it’s not the weirdness of her creatures that freaks you out… but their uncanny familiarity. They are too like us, with their freckles and blemishes, runny noses, and fingernails that need clipping. We identify with Piccinini’s sculptures… and a careful look in a mirror can be very uncomfortable.