Strange evolution: meet the weird relatives

It’s life but not as we know it: Australian artist Patricia Piccinini uses silicon, fibreglass and hair to make strange creatures that seem biologically plausible. But why?

Australian artist Patricia Piccinini makes extraordinarily lifelike sculptures, but often you can't be sure what life they are like. In the pieces that make up her exhibition Relativity, currently at Galway International Arts Festival, she creates a parallel world inhabited by creatures who are almost familiar but also disturbingly other. It's as if evolution has taken a slightly different path, or perhaps genetic engineering has edged out natural selection. "They are," she writes, "imaginary beings that are almost possible."

While she notes that they “have a beauty and an honesty within them”, they are definitely not cute, cuddly toys. Piccinini uses a range of techniques and materials, including silicon, fibreglass and hair, to convince us of the biological reality of her creatures.

Their flesh sags and creases and stretches over muscle. Their skin has a vivid nakedness to it and is pitted with moles and blemishes and lined with wrinkles. Tufts of straggly hair sprout here and there. They might have scales or talons.

Quite often these creatures are depicted together with straightforwardly human children. As with Steven Spielberg's ET, Piccinini looks to the openness and receptivity of children, their ability to respond to the other without learned prejudice. "For me, love is when a person allows you to love them, and there are so many blocks to that," she says.


An incongruous relationship

She singles out Long Awaited, a sculpture that has attracted much attention since she made it in 2008. It depicts a young boy sitting on a bench. Stretched along the bench, its head resting on his lap, is a bare, mammalian creature with a big, gentle, smiling face, eyes closed. The boy's head, in turn, rests on the creature's shoulder. It's a peaceful scene despite the incongruity of the relationship. The animal is based on the dugong, or sea cow, and it has a bovine quality, although it is also quasi- human. Its feet spread into a tail. Its arms and hands are fin-like. From the front, its wrinkled flesh appears human, although it is much tougher, less human in appearance, from the rear.

Piccinini is looking at the way bonds of affection can extend across species, but she also has something else in mind.

“We tend to emphasise the gulf between ourselves and other animals,” she says. “But of course we are all closely related. I was also thinking about the intergenerational love of a child for its grandmother. For me, the creature is a grandmother. She is allowing the boy to care for her, to nurture her as she once nurtured him.”

She notes that dugongs are thought to have inspired stories about mermaids. They are in-between creatures that, like us, moved from the sea on to the land but, unlike us, reverted to the ocean. They are also exceptionally nurturing animals and are under threat, largely because of climate change, which has diminished their diet of seaweed. So the work, in a sense, is a plea for a more responsible attitude to the species with whom we share the planet.

Her vast airborne sculpture Skywhale arose from a related speculation. "We stayed out of the sea, dugongs went back. So did whales. But, I was thinking, what if whales had not only stayed out of the sea but taken to the air?" The result is a vast, 35m balloon of an imagined creature, commissioned for the centenary of Canberra and now taking its chances with the weather vagaries of the western seaboard.

The dugong is not the only endangered animal to feature. The Surrogate (for the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat) focuses on an animal on the verge of extinction.

“I think there are something like 47 left, and that is not really tenable,” Piccinini says. She points to the fate of the Tasmanian tiger, eradicated by humans. “Now they propose to recreate the tiger using its DNA.” Thinking about the idea of using technology to undo the damage done to the environment, she decided to make a piece exploring a bold surrogacy project.

“The northern is one of three species of hairy-nosed wombat,” she says. “They aim to implant an embryo of a northern wombat in a southern wombat.” On a residency in a zoo, she created her own version of a wombat surrogate mother. From the front her creature is squat, relaxed, benign. But then, folded into pouches in its back, it hosts six embryonic wombats in varying stages of development. As ever, the image is both appealing and disturbing. That edginess is vital to her.

“I’m not telling people what to think, but I do want them to think,” she says. “I like bringing them into this space between, where there is something nice, but also this strange otherness.”

Plausibility is important to her. “It has to be something that people can envisage. If you go for outright fantasy, well, you can do anything, but it doesn’t relate to our world, it’s at a distance. I’m more interested in creating creatures that could have evolved. Or that could have been engineered.

“Our vision of the body is as something flexible, mutable. We use technologies to mend and modify, with the overall aim of making our lives better in some way. My father would not have had that notion of the body, yet my children are growing up with it, and I think it will become more extreme by the time they are adults.”

Scooters with antlers

One elegant, if startling, sculpture, The Lovers, features not humans or imagined creatures but Vespa scooters. These have transformed into biomorphic form, sprouting antlers of wing-mirrors. "You know this very current idea, that machines might reach the point where they can think? So that you could have machines making machines and evolving, so that technology could become autonomous, which is quite a frightening thought. Even Stephen Hawking has written about it as a real concern," Piccinini says.

Yet her sculpture is benign. Her machines are wrapped in an affectionate embrace. “I’m totally into car culture,” she says. “I grew up in the suburbs and I was enamoured of the Mod scene. In the suburbs, that’s what you do: you customise your scooter and you customise your car. Cars are art. I had this vision of Vespas as sentient creatures who reach the point where they might evolve in unpredictable ways.”

This and other works are in part a tribute to customising culture. Customised technology can be beautiful, and she sees a link between The Lovers and another, this time figurative, sculpture, The Welcome Guest. "It's taken from Goethe: 'Beauty is everywhere a welcome guest.'" A young girl stands on a bed with a sloth-like creature, which is perched on its lengthy talons. Beauty can take unexpected forms, Piccinini suggests, such as the male peacock perched at the head of the bed.

“The creatures that I imagine are not remotely as implausible as a peacock,” she says, pointing out the sheer lavishness of its appearance. “And it’s not for utilitarian reasons; it doesn’t make it move faster, it’s just about attracting a mate.”

One piece stands apart in appearing to be entirely abstract: a beautiful polished bronze called A Deeply Held Breath.

“I was trying to make an amorphous, visceral, bodily form,” she says. “It’s about corporeality. I was thinking of the experience of breath coming into your body, of energising the body, and it’s that inner sense. I suppose you could say it’s about mindfulness, but that’s become such a fashionable term.”

A Deeply Held Breath is as abstract as Piccinini gets. As contemporary art goes, her work is exceptionally accessible. "I've been through the art theory boom and come out at the other end," she says. "At a certain point I thought, I have to be able to make a work without referring to French philosophy. I shouldn't need the backing of some theorist to justify myself. Apart from anything else, there's just too much going on in the world, and we all have something that we want to talk about."

  • Relativity by Patricia Piccinini is at the Festival Gallery, Galway, until July 26th. Skywhale, depending on the weather, will be overhead in Galway.