Installation view of “Curious Imaginings,” with The Builder, 2018, silicone, fiberglass, and hair, 21.25 x 15.375 x 28.375 in. View of work as installed at the Patricia Hotel, Vancouver Biennale. Photo: roaming-the-planet (via Flickr)

Patricia Piccinini: Imagining Empathy

Peering into the hotel rooms of the budget Patricia Hotel in Vancouver was an indelicate intrusion into the most private of intimacies: a naked mother nursed her infants on a double bed while, in another room, a young couple in post-coital languor embraced under disheveled sheets. The shocking appearance of these strangers exacerbated the discomfiting sensation of being a Peeping Tom. The nursing mother—thoughtful, intelligent, and patient—had rows of teats and resembled a sow as much as a human. Her three floppy-eared babies—possibly cubs, possibly piglets—were as cute and engaging as any infant. The amorous couple, meanwhile, disconcerted not only by their nakedness, but also by their features: the male inordinately hirsute, his female lover prettily simian. Both possessed long, white, predatory claws on their feet and hands.

Another creature—an older boy with a sweet expression—lay on a single bed. His room was a medley of teenage obsessions, including a Marvel comic book super-hero poster, plastic action figures, and a partly read copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis left on the bed. Oddly, the sparse wisps of pale hair covering the teen’s pudgy body and bat-like ears were not the most striking things about him. A giant shoe tread grew out of his back, making him a hybrid of living creature and technology. Metamorphosis indeed.

The Couple, 2018. Silicone, fiberglass, hair, and found objects, installed dimensions variable, 16.5 x 66.125 x 25.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

These anthropomorphic creatures, possessing deep, thoughtful eyes, human hair and skin overlaying delicate blue veins, have a presence so lifelike it is as unnerving as if your cat started speaking English. What are they? Transgenic mutations? Laboratory-created chimeras? The works of a mad scientist? They are, first and foremost, the products of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini’s fecund and eccentric imagination. “Curious Imaginings”—an immersive retrospective of her work combining video and life-size anthropoids—was recently on view in 18 rooms at the Patricia Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighborhood, which includes the Downtown Eastside, a place of extreme poverty and addiction that is slowly undergoing gentrification.

Brought to the city by the Vancouver Biennale, “Curious Imaginings” was the first time that Piccinini’s figures were shown in a dedicated exhibition outside a museum setting. The gritty neighborhood surrounding the hotel lent the show a subversive air. It was as if these creatures had fled a world where they were hounded for being different, finding sanctuary among the real-life dispossessed and marginalized.

In this context, Piccinini’s figures provide broad and sweeping metaphors. Is the tread on the back of the teenage boy symbolic of being stomped on or crushed by an unsympathetic and obtuse world? According to Piccinini, the show was also a statement about the rapid technologization of nature. This includes the creation of chimeras—hybrid embryos containing human and sheep or pig cells—as the next step in harvesting organs for human transplantation. Most profoundly, Piccinini is making a statement about the state of nature, which is being roiled in the Anthropocene, with mass die-offs of species and omnipresent pollution and climate change calamities.

Installation view of “Inter-natural,” with: The Field, 2018, site-specific installation of 2000 PPE plastic flowers, dimensions variable; and The Bond, 2016, silicone, fiberglass, hair, and clothing, 63.75 x 22.125 x 19.75 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco
The Bond, 2016. Silicone, fiberglass, hair, and clothing, 63.75 x 22.125 x 19.75 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Her works also challenge the stereotypes that corset the collective imagination: “My work begins with me wondering where we draw the line between us and the world and [asking] if there is really a distinction between nature and culture and if people are really different from animals. Piccinini confesses that she is currently obsessed with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, finding herself sympathizing with the monster: “I’m especially interested in things that fall outside of our traditional ideas of normal or beautiful and that disregard the boundaries we erect between things.”

Piccinini is maternally defensive about her creatures because, as a mother and feminist, she celebrates the “valor of the maternal bond. The ethics of care and responsibility are at the core of my practice.” Living in solitary exile, on the periphery of acceptance and integration, her creatures give expression to the deep and still-haunting sense of discombobulation that Piccinini endured as a child after moving from Sierra Leone to Australia.

Her creations (it seems fallacious to refer to them as mere sculptures) have been exhibited around the world to both acclaim and condemnation. Some people, she says, accuse her of producing an “inane freak show” solely for “shock value. I just look at these people and go, ‘Psychopath, you can’t empathize.’”

The Naturalist, 2017. Silicone, fiberglass, and hair, 10.25 x 13.375 x 10.625 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Piccinini runs a large studio in her home city of Melbourne, where she and fellow artists, including husband Peter Hennessey, collaborate to make fiberglass and silicone molds, skin, eyes, and hair for the unworldly creatures, based on her sketches. Her “We Are Family” exhibition represented Australia at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 before touring the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Bendigo Art Gallery in Bendigo, Australia. In 2016, The Art Newspaper named Piccinini’s solo exhibition “ComCiência,” at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro, the most popular contemporary art exhibition of the year.

Such exposure places Piccinini exactly where she wants to be—deep within the often-controversial ethical and moral discussions generated by rapid technological advances: “I hope my work leads people to wonder at and wonder about the world around them and question their assumptions about their relationship with the world. I just want to be part of the conversation.”

Patricia Piccinini is one of 50 artists featured in “Auto-Didactic: The Juxtapoz School” at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, on view through June 2, 2019.