Originally published: Atmosphere | Autosphere | Biosphere
by Juliana Engberg ( 2001 )

It is perhaps inevitable when thinking about Patricia Piccinini's projects that one is sent back in time, along the trajectory of genre, to pause at another yawning of a century. Once arrived there we come face to face with the prototype of the bio-science/bio-genetic phenomenon: Mary Shelley's (Frankenstein's) ‘monster'. Not the Hollywood version with bolt-screwed head, outward arms and chunky shoes, but the tragic, all too human face which emerged from Frankenstein's laboratory and Shelley's imagination.(1)

Of course, there have been other 'monsters' born of the fictional inquiry into the human creation – Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll/Hyde, H. G. Wells' Dr Moreau – and popular culture's endless scientific-mistake-metamorphosing – The Fly, The Hulk – to name but a couple. But none have come as close to the questions which continue to perplex the idea of scientific intervention into natural creation as did Shelley's unnamed antihero.

Shelley wrote her story at a time of scientific distinction. The traces of Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia and The Temple of Nature, in which he espoused precursive thoughts on the interrelations between religion, botany, technology and medicine, even postulating the possibility of man-made life forms, appear in her narrative. Humphrey Davy's discussions concerning chemical philosophy also provide the background for the applied use of electric currents to animate creatures.

Shelley's book was conceived during a time in which the humanist desire for empirical knowledge and experiments into alchemical phenomena brought into question creation myths, and consequently introduced a form of science-led heretical thinking that forever destabilised the absolute belief systems of religion. Her text is a compendium of the enlightened discussions and experimental speculations which characterised the thinking of the time. It is informed, too, by the populist and often ghoulish accounts of body snatching and the moral debates that surrounded the use of cadavers for medical and scientific research.

No doubt Shelley's scientific hypothesis also refers to Byron's and Percy Shelley's vivid evening discussions to which she was privy. Frankenstein is in some ways her sobering feminine rebuttal to their heady masculine madness. It is a gripping, precursive thesis on the ethics of biogenetics.

As much as anything, and even above Mary Shelley's extraordinary grasp of emerging science, her story is a speculation about inherent human characteristics –‘genes' – and a highly sophisticated debate about the existence or non-existence of the divinely given soul.

In many ways Frankenstein is a story about loss. A loss of innocence, a loss of faith, a loss of loved ones: the loss of life, even when the central premise is creation. It is a sad tale of unrequitedness. And of emotional reticence. Of fear and loathing of the different or unknown. It shows the symbiotic relationship between maker and man and leaves open-ended a decision as to which was most monstrous: creator or creation. Above all it is a tale of impossible empathy.

Walking forward along the genre trajectory we arrive at the projects of Patricia Piccinini, an artist, like Mary Shelley, preoccupied with and inspired by the bio-ethics of her time and the debates they continue to generate. In Piccinini's 21st century, the newspapers are filled with sensationalised accounts of baby organs being cut from tiny bodies and used for medical research in the Liverpool Hospital. Scientists are discovering the prostate cancer gene most likely to be virulent. Pig hearts are transplanted into needy humans and in-vitro technology has led to the discovery that a foetus can be incubated outside the womb. Human body parts are being grown in the tissue of other animals. Babies can be made to order by making a judicious cocktail of genes. We have arrived at our brave new world.

Like Victor Frankenstein, Piccinini is a prodigious creator: animating life forms from the pixellated particles of the digital world. And like Mary Shelley, Piccinini is concerned with the pathos one finds in the moral, aesthetic and ethical dilemmas which accompany our new creation science. To this she adds a concern for the environment and for sustainable life.

From as early as her ‘LUMP' works in the mid 90s, Piccinini was at pains to fashion a lovable creature out of the unlikely synthetic world of the computer. The resultant form – LUMP – became a cute grotesquery: likeable, colour-coded in appealing pink, alert and proportioned for cuddle-comfort. Like Frankenstein's creature who is banished to the ice seas of the Arctic, Piccinini in her works Psychogeography and Psychotourism has sent her LUMP to far-flung frontiers: the better to enter upon a new world utopia. But unlike Frankenstein's abandoned monster, LUMP is accompanied by its own monstrously perfect human who points the way. In Piccinini's world a new symbiosis is forming between creators and creations.

In more recent projects Piccinini has developed what might be called a kind of empathetic atmosphere in her works. Now using a repertoire of image, sound and touch-sensation, she has created a number of sensory installations which take the viewer into another reality.

People often apply the term ‘virtual reality' to describe the works of Patricia Piccinini, but this is not evocative enough of her achievements. While Piccinini goes to great lengths to produce works which appear to replicate reality as we know it, her project is in fact to create an alternative reality. The term ‘virtuality' is therefore more appropriate. Virtuality extends the idea of virtual reality to the point where it becomes active or creative. Virtuality suggests something that exists in its own right which: 1. possesses force or power; 2. is essential nature and being, apart from external form or embodiment; 3. has a potentiality. The reality of Piccinini's works are inherent. They are their own life force, but one which we recognise and empathise with.

But it is more than just recognition which forms this feeling of empathy. Such emotion is encouraged in the viewer by the constant presence of the embryonic in Piccinini's works. First the LUMP, the ‘sprout' and infant bird in Plasticology then the precocious Truck Babies and most recently S02, the vulnerable new life form in The Breathing Room.

Empathy is enhanced by the fleetingness of these creatures, or their vulnerability to the elements. In Plasticology the promising new life form of the sprout is buffeted by winds, its jerky movements worrying the maternal in us which fears for its little life inside the increasingly hectic motion of the mature ferns, swaying wildly in the cyclonic winds. Also in Plasticology, the little bird who perches on his twig seems perpetually tremulous and timid. Hopes for interaction are thwarted by the bird's departure as the visitor ventures closure. In The Breathing Room, the sight of the new life form is momentary. Its scuttling sounds are heard behind the visitors but it disappears as they turn to look for it – all too late.

Piccinini sets up a scenario of unrequitedness which in turn establishes desire. The impossible empathy between creator and creation has been made possible. Equally, the fear and loathing of the different and unknown which diminished the humanity between the paternal Frankenstein and his progeny has been answered by Piccinini's maternal emphasis on the infantile. Faith and innocence have been restored, but not without panic.

The Breathing Room is perhaps Piccinini's best example of the dread which has accompanied us into the new frontier of the 21st century. Sweaty, hyperventilating, pulsing, dilating, shaking, these are the birthing pains of our new millennium which has pushed out its new life form for which we have no name yet. No longer LUMP-like, its physical characteristics provoke the same incredulity which accompanied the first sighting of the platypus: it is the next stage along the line of accepting the cutely grotesque. Very possibly it is a premonition of the mutant babies which may generate from the early experiments in genetically engineered offspring.

The Breathing Room is an almost over-empathised space since there is little we can do to calm the panic, and since it is cyclical we remain trapped by its awesome physicality. But which is better? The unrelenting, perpetual calmness of Horizon with its blue sea and sky that will never deliver us beyond its viewpoint, or the clenching palpitations which accompany the effort once we have arrived at our journey's end, to start once more the creation process.

Piccinini, like Shelley before her, works at a time of scientific distinction. Between their two centuries the debates into bio-genetics have straggled behind the accelerated programs of eugenics. Whereas in Shelley's era the idea of man-made life forms seemed plausible, but not yet reality, we now know beyond doubt that ‘we have the technology'. Piccinini therefore works in an era of inevitable acceptance of our ability to create: her project then is to build back into this process the emotional body, to create an atmosphere of empathy. She achieves this not in virtual reality: but in reality.

1. It is interesting to see the 1831 illustrations to Mary Shelley's book. They show the creation as almost classically beautiful, not monstrous at all, but oversized as compared to Frankenstein.