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Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection | John McDonald

Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection

June 15, 2018
Patricia Piccinini, 'The Bond'

In 2016 Patricia Piccinini became the most popular contemporary artist in the world – or so the statistics say. A free admission show in Rio de Janeiro attracted 444,425 visitors, propelling her to the top of the Art Newspaper’s annual rankings. It may be a moment to fly the Australian flag, but such statistics tell us nothing about an artist’s work, aside from its popular appeal.

Piccinini won’t be expecting such astronomical numbers for Curious Affection, her survey at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), but not because of any lack of effort on behalf of the venue. GOMA has developed a reputation for exhibition design and presentation, and for Piccinini they’ve given it everything. It’s one of the most elaborate and ambitious displays ever devoted to a single Australian artist.

With Piccinini’s work I’ve always felt like the wowser at the party. There are two main stumbling blocks, the first being that almost everything is created by skilled artisans according to the artist’s specifications. She supplies the ideas and the design but the actual making takes place in factory conditions. This may be no different from figures such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, but these international art celebrities produce a huge volume of high-priced trash.

The problem with this method is that the artist’s role becomes that of a factory manager. A product may be manufactured to the most exacting standards but it will always lack those spontaneous changes of direction that occur in the studio when one sets out with a certain intention and ends by making something completely different.

Patricia Piccinini… kawaii!

There are only a few traces of the artist’s hand in this enormous survey: two neat, precise drawings that show children playing with imaginary creatures; two surreal drawings of disembodied arms forming arches, and a set of ink-and-gouache abstractions. None of these works would justify such a show. It’s the silicone sculptures and large installations that get the cameras clicking.

This brings me to problem no. 2. Every catalogue essay or artist’s statement emphasises Piccinini’s involvement with “issues”, such as genetic engineering, cross-species relationships, stem cell research and so on. There are also the inevitable references to science fiction classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G.Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.

In these books we have become accustomed to the monsters being victims whose maltreatment turns them towards savagery. Piccinini’s revolutionary gesture is to make all her ‘monsters’ into caring, nurturing companions that like nothing better than looking after small children, or in the case of The Carrier (2102), lugging an old lady around. As Rosa Braidotti writes approvingly in her catalogue essay: “Piccinini shows us posthuman subjects who care”.

Patricia Piccinini, ‘The Carrier’

If this were an ironic gesture one might see her life-like silicone sculptures as mocking our ingrained intolerance for creatures that are different, and by conventional standards, ugly. There’s nothing especially attractive about The Young Family (2002), in which the mother is a wrinkly, pink hybrid of human being and pig; or Big Mother (2005), which features a hairy, ape-like anthropoid suckling a small human baby; or The Bond (2016), in which a girl in a blue dress hugs a lump of coiled flesh with blonde hair and saucer-like eyes.

Patricia Piccinini, ‘The Young Family’

Yet the rhetoric that accompanies these works, from catalogue to wall label, is relentlessly saccharine. We are expected to push aside our nasty prejudices and see these creatures as cute, cuddly and compassionate. We need to overlook those repellant exteriors and appreciate the beauty within.

This may sound like a terrible cliché but we are invited to dignify such ideas by seeing them as part of an “ethical” stance, or to quote Braidotti again: “a neo-materialist affirmative ethics focused on qualitative transformations.”

I may be wrong, but I would translate this as a willingness to embrace all creatures great and small, all creeds and codes, as a way of short-circuiting the roles allotted to us by consumer capitalism. Think of it as the Nirvana of identity politics: transspecies, transgender, transeverything.

What’s most disturbing about such claims is not their inherent absurdity; their utopian disregard for the reality of a world riven by religious fanaticism and gimcrack populism in which racism and bigotry exert an ever-greater influence on mainstream politics.

What’s worst is the gross sentimentality. It’s not only found in the rhetoric that frames the exhibition, it’s in those big, pleading eyes; the adoring, innocent children who can ‘see’ more clearly than we adults, steeped as we are in the prejudices of a lifetime. This is another sentimental cliché because no-one could be more intolerant than children. At school, most children are desperate to conform to whatever passes as the norm.

It’s no easier to accept that all the creatures in Piccinini’s menagerie are inherently peaceful and loving. Nature “red in tooth and claw” is not the least bit sentimental. In the state of nature everything eats everything else. We’ve seen how treating animals as friends can have terrible consequences: children mauled by small dogs, a woman savaged by a pet chimp, people walking up to lions or bears to take selfies.

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Big Mother’

If we feel repulsed by a large, hairy anthropoid it may not be because we are species bigots, but because we don’t feel safe in its presence. Piccinini might feel there are enough horror stories about science-gone-wrong and it’s time for a more positive approach, but there’s nothing positive about being a sentimentalist – famously defined by Oscar Wilde as “one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

There’s a good reason that many people are disturbed by ideas of genetic engineering or a “post-human” world. For all of its inconsistencies we’ve grown comfortable with a particular conception of human nature. To abandon a flawed but familiar model in favour of a Disneyland version of the future in which we are surrounded by cuddly mutants, is not an enticing prospect. For all the waffle one reads about issues and ethics, about how Piccinini is teaching us to abandon our prejudices and see goodness everywhere, I suspect the reason so many people have flocked to see her work is rather less noble. Dress it up however you like, but Curious Affection is basically an old-fashioned freak show.

Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 24 March – 5 August, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June, 2018