Patricia Piccinini's Offspring

Originally published: Call of the Wild (catalogue), MCA Sydney
by Peter Hennessey ( 2002 )

”A face only a mother could love: Patricia Piccinini’s offspring”

The humourous and uncanny nature of much of Patricia Piccinini’s work is undeniable, as is its occasional grotesqueness. However, underneath this there is another layer that ties the disparate forms of her work together. From her earliest ”LUMP” photographs, through the ”Truck Babies” to her most recent ”Game Boy Advanced”, Piccinini has chosen to speak through the mouths of babes. Nor are these just everyday babies, they are strange, literally mutant offspring whose provenance is dubious at best and whose place in this world is far from obvious or secure. However, like any babies these cry out for us to care for them. Piccinini ’challenges’ us to love these poor wee things and it is often quite a challenge.

Why would she do this? It is certainly not to be ironic. If there is one thing this work is not, it is ironic. This is warm, sincere work that more than opens itself up for charges of unfashionable sentimentality. In creating, as she does, a sort of lost dogs home for the stray and unwanted outcomes of contemporary ideas and technologies, she is both critiquing the process that creates these ’strays’ and declaring her support for the strays themselves.

She is also displaying an extraordinary faith in human nature. In expecting her audience to love her Siren Mole, she is asking a society that needs to legislate against racially-based discrimation to find room in its heart for a fleshy, moist, mostly hairless, ecological underachiever who wouldn’t exist at all except for the hubris of the biotech industry. It’s a big ask really.

This is precisely what makes her work both interesting and complex. Piccinini presents us with snapshots of a world that might exist, and more often than not we are disturbed by what we see there. Piccinini looks at genetic engineering and instead of seeing row upon row of pearly smiling gold-medallists, she sees mutant marsupials and rodents with one ear too many. However, what she also sees is a beauty in these things, and she invites us to see that too. Whether we will or not is almost immaterial, compared to the faith that she places in us in believing that we will. I think that this is what saves the work from being simplistic or didactic. It is neither a ’nightmare vision of a world gone mad’ nor a ’brave new world’. Instead, Piccinini invites us to draw our own conclusions and in doing so affirms the possibility that we might be capable of doing so. However, while we can make our own decisions about whether we are disturbed by the possible outcomes of the paths we are taking, Piccinini insists that we must still take responsibility for those outcomes should they arise.

The fact that many writers have pointed to connections between Piccinini’s work and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein suggests that the parallels are deep and resonant. However, the crucial point is the difference; where Frankenstein sees his monster and reviles it, Piccinini sees hers and cherishes them. As much as she points to the possible problems that new technologies might bring, and the way that they might disrupt our very notion of what constitutes humanity, Piccinini never judges those ’problems’ or ’disruptions’ as themselves culpable. On the contrary, she has far more sympathy for the twisted children than she does for us, their unintentional parents; if we don’t like how they look, that it our problem not theirs. The artist is more than aware that many of the biotechnological processes she examines have at their heart a desire to create a more homogeneous and controlled world, and she takes pleasure in daring us to embrace possible outcomes which are not so much ’abnormal’ as anti-normal. As she has often said, she would never make something that she didn’t love.

Piccinini’s latest infant is ”Game Boy Advanced (Ollie, 1997 - 2005)”, which is gestating even as I write this. This is an unusually melancholy work for the artist, particularly in that it grew out of that much more contented and playful ”Still Life with Stem Cells.” In the new work we are presented with an eight year old child, leaning against the gallery wall absorbed in a handheld video game. The child appears unremarkable at first, until we look closer and notice his prematurely aged face and hands. The child’s wrinkled, slack skin contrasts markedly with his juvenile size and bone structure, and we are left in no doubt that there is something terrible going on.

There is of course the possibility that he might be the victim of some naturally occurring genetic syndrome, but Piccinini’s title for the work points to a different diagnosis. The date suggests that the work depicts an eight year old born in 1997, the same year as Dolly the cloned sheep, but the clincher comes in a companion work still under construction; ”Game Boy Advanced (Solly, 1997 - 2005)”. It turns out that Piccinini is planning a number of these works. In the second an identical boy looks over the first boy’s shoulder, watching him play his Nintendo. Ollie and Solly are clones of course, and their unjustified decrepitude is a reference to reports that Dolly herself is ageing at a more rapid rate than would be expected, evidenced by the early onset of arthritis. Strangely enough, in a bizarre twist on the argument of heredity versus environment, her ’parents’ maintain that this could have resulted from her sedentary, laboratory-bound existence rather than any genetic problems resulting from the cloning process. The irony of this is obviously lost on them.

Of course, whether or not Dolly is truly hyper-aged or just unfit is not really the point. What is really important is that we don’t know for sure, and with Dr Severino Antinori in Italy already hinting at a human clone on the way, the artist’s ’what if?’ is both pertinent and possible. There is undeniable pathos in ”Game Boy Advanced (Ollie, 1997 - 2005)” but, to his credit, Ollie doesn’t seem to realise it. Like any eight year old, he is absorbed in his own world, bent on beating the machine and pushing Mario and Luigi to a new high score. He neither notices nor cares about out sympathetic glances. This is an interesting moment in Piccinini’s practice: Once more she has revealed to us a being who elicits our empathy but this time I get the distinct impression that he is perfectly capable of making it on his own.