In Another Life

Originally published: In Another Life catalogue, Wellington City Gallery, Wellington, NZ
by Patricia Piccinini ( 2006 )

Artist’s Statement for In Another Life

In Another Life is all about possibilities. In another life it would be different, we might say, in another life it might be better, or perhaps worse, in another life we could get it right. In imagining another life we can remake the world as we would prefer, we can create a perfect life without having to see whether it would actually work, we can just trust that it would all turn out.

When we imagine that in another life we might have done things differently, it reflects the fact that throughout our life we struggle to make the right decisions but can rarely be assured of a perfect record. As I have said previously, much of the work in this show is about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. However, the fact that good intentions cannot guarantee a good outcome is not an argument against good intentions, it is an argument against arrogance.

We have reached a point in our understanding of world and its processes - genetics, physics, biochemistry, anatomy - where a complex web of mysteries seem to be revealing themselves to us. Even beyond that, we are beginning to be able to manipulate these forces to our own ends. It is easy to imagine that we really are starting to understand the world and the implications of what we are doing to it.

The danger here is to confuse creation with control. Just because we can create and manipulate things does not necessarily mean that we can control our creations. Anyone who dabbles in creation would do well to remember that as soon as something exists we begin to lose our grip on it. For me this freedom is a beautiful thing. When I make a work it means a certain thing to me, and I hope that, to a certain extent, it might communicate that thing to others. Once it is out in the world, its meanings and images begin to proliferate. I have seen the same work used to illustrate both sides of an argument, which I see as a valuable independence from my own opinions. I like this, even though it is and not always in ways that I would prefer.

It is easy to deride those people in the past that did terrible things because they didn’t really understand the implications of their actions. What were they thinking when they introduced the cane toad? Well, they were actually thinking much as we do now. They had brought sugar cane and that seemed to be thriving, but the cane beetles that came with it had no predators to keep them in check. So they analysed the cane in its natural habitat and determined that what kept the cane beetles down back there was the cane toad. It therefore made scientific and logical sense to bring the toad over also, to complete the package. In retrospect this was a ridiculously simplistic assessment of the situation, but at the time they thought that they had it all figured out. The difference between then and now is that we are even surer now that we have it all figured out.

In another life implies the possibility to create another world for yourself. I have always loved the idea of creating an entire world of my own. I guess that is why you become an artist, because you get that opportunity. What I have learned however is that the world of my imagining is nowhere near as strange or impossible as I first thought. In fact, the more I learn about the ’real’ world, the more I realise just how truly bizarre it is.

Out-weirding the world, however, is not the point of creating your own alternative universe. Firstly because that is almost impossible - for every strange creature you can think of there is a stranger one out there already - and secondly because it just adds to the clutter of the world. (Although I have to admit that I am a big fan of things - the more the better!) I think the point of crafting another life is so that you can talk about this one, and not just to yourself but also to the people around you.

The world that I have been lost in for the last several years is not the same as ours but it is not that different - it is not inconceivable. Obviously the things that I create don’t actually exist but perhaps they could. In fact, perhaps I create them because they should. The ideas, the context, the technologies required for their existence are certainly already part of our world; genetic engineering, biotechnology, stem cell research, cloning, bio-electronics are all part of everyday life for us. The possibilities for my creations are already amongst us, and before too long the things themselves could turn up unannounced, without our ever having had the opportunity to wonder how much we want them.

This is the question that I invite you to ponder with me. However, my interest is not in coming to an easy answer, I am more interested in exploring just how complex and slippery a question it is. Of course we want the good without the bad, but the two are never so easily separated, even when we can tell them apart. I am particularly fascinated by the unexpected consequences, the stuff we don’t want but must somehow accommodate. There is no question as to whether there will be undesired outcomes; my interest is in whether we will be able to love them.

This leads me to an additional implication of ’In Another Life’, the empathy that might arise when we imagine ourself in another’s life, in their shoes. The idea, experience and possibilities of empathy are important to me. My work is not dry, cool and rational; it is wet, warm and emotional. Much of the context that underpins my work is medical or environmental; many of the technologies that I comment upon are aimed at saving lives, easing suffering, protecting biodiversity. It is one thing to calmly opine on ethics but another to cling desperately to their possibilities as you see something or somebody close slipping away.

I understand this desperation, and in some ways I am most interested in listening to what the desperate have to say. I see my work as propositions that relate to a number of theoretical issues but they also have an emotional element that complicates the questions. I like this complication because it is like life. Ideally these things will disturb you even as you warm to them, or vice versa. They are probably the wrong answer, but perhaps there is something special in their incorrectness.