Interview with The Condition Report

by Patricia Piccinini and The Condition report ( 2014 )

Patricia Piccinini was born in Sierra Leone and lives in Australia. Her work encompasses sculpture, photography, video and drawing and her practice examines the increasingly nebulous boundary between the artificial and the natural as it appears in contemporary culture and ideas. Her surreal drawings, hybrid animals and vehicular creatures question the way that contemporary technology and culture changes our understanding of what it means to be human and wonders at our relationships with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. While ethics are central, her approach is ambiguous and questioning rather than moralistic and didactic.

The Condition Report: Could you tell us how you came to be a practicing artist?

Patricia Piccinini: I have been interested in visual arts since high school and, after realising that I had absolutely no interest in the economics degree I had undertaken at ANU, I started a BFA in Sydney which I completed at VCA in Melbourne. My focus at that time was drawing and painting. I finished VCA at the height of the last big recession in the early 90s, and seeing that I was not going to be able to join one of the dwindling number of commercial galleries, I started an ARI called the Basement Project which ran for three years. Things came  a little at a time and all of a sudden it's 20 years later and I'm still making art, which is really all I ever wanted to do.

TCR: Which core ideas inform your work?

PP: My practice is focused on bodies and relationships; the relationships between people and other creatures, between people and our bodies, between creatures and the environment, between the artificial and the natural. I am particularly interested in the way that the everyday realities of the world around us change these relations. Perhaps because of this, many have looked at my practice in terms of science and technology, however, for me it is just as informed by Surrealism and mythology. My work aims to shift the way that people look at the world around them, and question their assumptions about the relationships they have with the world. I am especially interested in things that fall outside of our traditional ideas of normal or beautiful, or that step across the boundaries that we erect between things. How does contemporary technology and culture changes our understanding of what it means to be human. What is our relationship with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. Ideas rather than methods are central to they way I work, although drawing plays a central generative role in everything I do. I work with whatever mediums seems best suited to evoking the sorts of thoughts and emotions I am interested in playing with. I work across many media - sculpture, installation, photography, video, drawing - from intimate drawings to gigantic public sculptures such as The Skywhale.

TCR: How important are the materials you work with and how particular are you about these aspects?

PP: Materials are very important to me, and always have been. I put a lot of time and thought into my work, which I see as a sort of respect for both the work and the audience, and I have always been very concerned that the materiality of the work reflects that. Now that other people have my works, it's really important to me that what they have has longevity. In the studio we spend a lot of time working our what materials will work best and also last. We do tests and come back to them years later to see how they are still performing, and this leads our decisions. For example, we always use resin instead of polyurethane, even though it takes more work and is in places where it can't be seen, because resin tends to be more UV stable than urethane. We always use plywood rather than MDF for structural stuff for the same reasons. The silicone we use is the hardest, most UV stable we can get, and we have done enormous amounts of testing and research to get a paint solution that is extremely hardy and repairable.

TCR: What materials do you use?

PP: In the studio we use a pretty wide range of materials for the sculptures; silicone, fibreglass, human and animal hair, ABS plastic, dental acrylic, traditional and high-tech plasters, stainless steel, automotive paint, plywood,  Britannia metal, found objects and taxidermy animals. We also produce videos and photographs, both c-type and ink-jet. For one work we developed a human hair felt, which involved collecting and sorting hundreds of kilos of human hair, and then blending it will a tiny percentage of black merino followed by carding and felting. I have had sculptures cast in bronze, silver and aluminium. My drawings are all graphite or pigment ink and gouache on paper.

TCR: When choosing materials to use do price, brand, quality and range affect your selection?

PP: Quality and longevity are the primary criteria, along with repairability and ease of production. As I said, the studio does a lot of testing before we settle on a system. Unfortunately, this means that price tends to come pretty far down the list.

TCR: Do you consider the longevity of your artworks when creating them and making choices about materials and techniques?

PP: Absolutely. For me it is a matter of respect for the ideas in the work and the people who look at them. I absolutely hate it when works come back to the studio for repair, and I try to make sure that they never do. In fact, when they do it is because they have been accidentally damaged rather than yielding to any intrinsic faults. We did have one work where it looked like the fibreglass was discolouring, but it turned out it was reacting to the foam it was packed against in storage. We repaired it and sent it back with better packing.

TCR: In your practice do you work on one piece at a time or several?

PP: I usually have several things on the go. Whether it is my own drawings for the next work that I am working on while a sculpture is being fabricated or several works at different points in production. I tend to work towards specific exhibitions, so there will often be a big push towards the end when we're finishing off a bunch of stuff.

TCR: Do you revisit old works and make changes?

PP: Not really. Obviously, I don't make an entire edition all at once, so the studio often goes back to produce editions, but that's a bit different. I guess I'm always thinking about the next work

TCR: How do you document your art practice and body of work?

PP: Mostly through photography. Of course, all my work is photographed and I also take quite a lot of photographs of work in production. The studio keeps notes on the details of editions and production processes and the like. I have a database of all my works that I maintain to keep track of works and editions. I pretty much keep everything; we have drawers full of samples and tests and every old catalogue and magazine.

TCR: If one of your artworks of yours was damaged, would you want to repair it yourself or would you prefer/be happy for a trained conservator to make the needed repairs?

PP: So long as they had experience with the sort of materials we use, I would be very happy. Most of the work I make uses materials that are a bit outside of the traditional fine art world. We tend to be talking to fabricators in the film and special effects or automotive customisation worlds. That having been said, I'm sure as more and more artists come to use these sorts of media, the expertise amongst conservators is going to keep pace with that.