Patricia Piccinini interviewed by Jane Messenger

by Jane Messenger ( 2011 )

JM: One of your earliest ‘art related’ memories was visiting the Art Gallery of South Australia as a child; profound because it made you aware of the emotional effect art could generate. You have also recalled how, as a teenager, you walked away from school and ended up at the National Gallery of Australia; the inspiring experience of which transcended your negative state of mind. How have such immediate experiences shaped your artistic evolution?

PP: When I was nine my family visited Adelaide and my father brought me to the AGSA. We hadn't lived in Australia long and, although I'd seen art before in the churches of Italy where I grew up, this was totally different. I didn't really know what this place was, but I remember responding to it, especially to a Charles Ray work. It was big mirror that the viewer could see their reflection in. On the mirror was an image of a huge woman in a suit looking down on the reflection of the viewer. Even as a 9 year old I could get something from it; a woman, even taller than my own mother, was judging me. However, at the same time this woman wasn't real. She was a product, she looked plastic, like a mannequin. I still like Ray's work today and perhaps my reading of it would be more sophisticated now, but what is more important to me is how strongly my memory of the work has remained with me. It reminds me that it art can resonate with anyone in the community, not just people in the art world.

I often recall the day I wagged high-school and ended up at the ANG in Canberra. This was pretty significant for me as I was an embarrassingly diligent student. Most young people look for something that seems to be missing from their lives. I was just lucky that there was a gallery in my town. It was the first time I felt that relief at being in a space of ideas. That day I just wandered from work to work by myself. Nobody told me what to think, what to like, what to understand. It was what I needed when I felt really fed up with everything. This same feeling is what I still look for.

How did it shape my evolution? I guess it made me value art. Perhaps if I'd ended up in a shopping mall I'd value consumer products more. I don't think art for me is therapy, it's more like a space to think about stuff, in a quiet way. And I like having quiet conversations with art works that seem relevant to me - like Ray's work did all that time ago. It has also left me with a commitment to making work that speaks to people about the world they live in.

JM: Your first degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Economic History from the Australian National University, which you then followed with a degree in painting from the Victorian College of the Art, Melbourne. What prompted this change in direction and your decision to become an artist? Has the degree in Economic History influenced the artist you have become? Your practice, for example, is socially motivated and prompts audiences to consider the commercial and political conflicts inherent to the development of biotechnologies.

The whole economics degree was really just one of those things that happen when you're 18. I would have liked to have gone straight to art school but I was convinced by well meaning loved ones that I needed a “proper” degree. To be honest, I went into Economics having really no idea of what it was or any real interest in it. I left with a bit more understanding than I started with but even less interest. In hindsight I realise that economics, as it was taught to me at least, pretends to be a science but is really more of an ideology. So much of what we were told was presented to us a fact, when it was really more of an opinion or a preference. I would like to think it gave me some sort of more informed insight into the workings of the world, but more than anything I think it just made me a bit more skeptical. I am not naturally skeptical, so I guess it was worth it for that.

One thing I did realise, although it was definitely not what we were taught, was that in the end all these forces and processes – whether they are science, economics, politics or marketing – are done by people, and people behave very differently from idealised models. Things are not always rational or efficient or clever. Things go unexpectedly wrong.

So when it comes to biotechnology and its commercial and political implications, I don't try to present myself as an expert and I don't trust the actual experts to be infallible. What I am is involved, just like anybody else. My aim is to try to look at these things from other angles, and to open up a space where the viewer can formulate a response. That is not so say that my work is purely neutral or objective. Far from it. My work is totally subjective, and in many ways as motivated by emotion and sentiment as hard science. In fact each one of us has a different response and this response is not unmediated by emotion, and I think this is an important part of any decision. In that way, my work is very much like a myth or fairy tale. It is an otherworldly, emotionally effecting fiction that nevertheless attempts to deal with real world moral and ethical issues.

JM: Your practice is rarely discussed in relation to the artists you admire or the art historic movements that inspire you. I am intrigued to know which artists and periods you particularly regard and why. You spent a year in Florence, for example, studying at the Universita di Firenze; the Mother and Child theme in your practice could therefore be a conscious reference to the Italian Renaissance tradition or the coincidence of creation, sacrifice and loss also being central concepts in your work.

PP: In that particular case, I think it is more of a coincidence. I never set out to recreate the Madonna and Child, but that theme is so central to my practice, and there are so few other representations of it that it is almost inevitable that there should be some sort of reference. One strange side effect of growing up Catholic in Italy is that I have only recently realised that these were representations of ‘a mother’ and ‘a child’ rather than ‘Mary’ and ‘Jesus’. I’ll probably be looking at them more in the future.

I look at a lot of art, mostly contemporary but I do have some particular historical interests. Much of it finds its way into my work, but usually in fairly oblique ways rather than by direct reference. When I am moved by something, I try to work out what about it effects me and see if there is a way I can work with that in my own work. For example, I am strangely drawn to Victorian social realism, and I have come to recognise that I am quite taken by its mixture of politics and sentimentality. It is a bizarre and unfashionable blend – literally “uncool” – but I find it quite powerful and it really informs my recent sculptures.

My version of Doubting Thomas is certainly the most literal reference that I have ever made. The work is clearly inspired by the Caravaggio painting, but it is also fits into the history of artists using this story and this trope for their own purposes. In this case it is quite deliberate, but sometimes it does just happen. Looking at my newest work Eulogy come together, I was reminded of Beuys’ “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, both on a formal level but also in terms of the melancholy attempt to reconcile contemporary life with nature. That was a bit of a surprise.

JM: Early in your career, you spent time in medical museums making renderings of old specimens, pathologies and aberrations – just as August Rodin studied anatomy at the Natural History Museum, Paris. Do these drawings act as a type of pattern book from which you continue to gain inspiration, to create the ‘welts’ on the back of Big Mother for example, or do they underpin the conviction of your work more generally? To what extent is drawing still part of your creative process (distinct from your ‘finished’ drawings as ‘art’)?

In many ways, I have always been more interested in the unseen or unwanted sides of anatomy, rather than the perfect bodies we see so often in the media. I was drawn to the pathology museums because it was a place where I could see the stuff that was so often hidden, the strange or different or dangerous. It was amazing to me that this inoffensive looking cotton-wool-like stuff in a lung could be cancer. I was fascinated by the complex, almost floral beauty what existed beneath the skin, and also by the incongruously precise and rectilinear cuts made by the dissectors in order to show it off. I was also interested in the aberrations and variations that I found there, things that, while technically 'pathological', were to me more intriguing.

I still carry that fascination with me, even though I tend to draw my inspiration more from zoology and natural history than from pathology these days. Having said that, I am still often drawn to these amorphous protean forms that recall internal organs.

Ultimately, the interests that prompted me to want to draw in pathology museums still underlie the work that I make today. Also, the process of drawing is still fundamental to the way I make my work. Ultimately, my work is about ideas and drawing is a way for me to begin the process of communicating those ideas, both to my fabricators and to myself. It is also a way to resolve those ideas into meaningful images and objects, which is essentially what I am trying to do.

JM: There is profound hope surrounding the possibility that biotechnologies will provide relief from death and suffering - whether that be as a cure for motor neuron disease or growing genetically modified crops in third world countries. There is also great fear that these technologies will be exploited for commercial gain and narcissistic purposes – whether that is by pharmaceutical companies through prohibitively expensive medical treatments or the ‘design’ of genetically modified progeny. Your practice draws our attention to these issues while focusing on the consequences of the process that are frequently overlooked – the inevitable suffering and genetic ‘mutations’. Do you believe that hope is meaningful only in the context of fears? How does this relate to your work, if at all?

I think my work is all about hope. I have no problem at all with hope, in fact I myself have these very same hopes. Hope is a very positive and useful emotion. However, I am very critical of the way that 'hope' is often confused with 'faith'. Faith is the belief in something, be it religion or technology, to an extent that it no longer requires any sort of proof. I think we are encouraged to have a degree of faith in technology which is a little too unquestioning. It's not that I think there is some global conspiracy amongst the drug companies. It's more that I know that scientists are fallible and that there are economic pressures that often make idealism difficult to sustain. I am also aware of the long history of undesirable results that have flowed from wonderful intentions. I hope we can get it right this time, but I certainly don't have enough faith to think we can just relax and ignore the issues because 'they' have got it covered.

Strangely, there is another kind of hope in my work, which actually comes from my lack of faith. You see, when it comes to things like genetically engineered creatures, I am just as interested in the failures that might occur as the successes. As a lover of diversity and unusualness of every kind, I see a wonderful possibility in the unexpected. There is a certain tendency to normalise in medicine, and also the increasing pathologisation of things that were just idiosyncrasies until they could be 'cured'. When you couple these tendencies with the desire for 'economies of scale' that the markets impose, I see a real threat to diversity of all kinds. We can already see how GM in industrialised food production is leading to fewer and fewer species of crops. In my work, you see this strange hope that our own mistakes might actually go some way towards countering that.

JM: In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that your work ponders the incredible diversity and specialist functions of ‘naturally’ evolved species, in relation to which many of your creatures are no more or less sensational. To what extent is your work a meditation on evolutionary biology and the importance of biodiversity? You are in the process of developing a new body of work, which includes Eulogy created for this exhibition, to which these ideas (and cautions) are particularly pertinent, I believe.

All of the work in this exhibition, from the earliest photographs, through the video works to the most recent sculptures, are in one way or another a meditation on what constitutes “nature”, and what has and continues to impact on that definition. What is our “nature” in the contemporary world of media and biotechnology? How does that nature differ from traditional ecologies? That evolutionary forces form nature goes without saying, but it is important to remember that we are not somehow apart from those evolutionary forces. Speed is the only major difference between when a new species is created as a result of our technology or as a result of some other ecological constraint. We are not separate from nature, it is the world around us, the world of plastic and TV as well as the stuff we set aside in wildlife preserves. We do have the power to push nature in a direction that is, to me anyway, pretty horrible, but it will still be nature.

This is very much where my own predilections come in. I love the wonder and diversity I see in the natural world, and I would love us to be a part of expanding rather than contracting that. That is pretty idealistic and unrealistic, I guess, but you need to believe in something. Sometimes, it is interesting to sit back and reflect on how weird and amazing the world is, but also how fragile, and to wonder how much we've learned, or how little. That's what this new piece, Eulogy, is about. It's celebratory but at the same time mournful, and it's unusual for me in that I haven't made anything up. Sometimes, you don't need to.