One Night Love
Originally published: Object Magazine
by Nikos Papastergiadis (2002)
Some time ago I asked Patricia Piccinini about the role of the studio in her art practice. She paused for a moment and then replied, 'actually my car is my studio'. Piccinini then described the long journeys to the workshops in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, and the thinking space that driving provides. When Piccinini invited me to open the exhibition she also drove me to one of the workshops to see these artworks in various stages of production. The journey was as telling as the destination.
Linda Michael, in her exemplary catalogue essay, captures both the spirit of the idea and the technique of their production. "Piccinini's objects embody both the promise and the compromise of one night love. They perpetuate the illusion of plenitude and satisfaction offered by consumption, yet undermine it too. ... As Piccinini describes, her works are 'about compromises - about being able to find beauty in a world which can never be perfect.' She collaborates with professional car modellers and custom painters to make objects whose shapes and surfaces are unmistakably car-like, and uses these bite-sized chunks of cars to explore what it is that makes us so willing to take the bad with the good. … Organic rounded shapes are transformed by a lurid, almost baroque paint-job, presenting super-reflective surfaces that deflect our desire - authentic modernist to suburban motorhead in a few coats of paints. These nuggets belong to the consumer world of junk food and freeways - the familiar territory of Pop Art. So, what is it that makes this world so appealing?'
Linda Michael suggests that the answer to this question lies in our ambivalence towards icons. Piccinini's work does draw from two icnonic spaces which rarely meet in our culture. She shows that in suburbia, identity is found in the way the lover customises the standardised and stock model. Similarly, the artist draws from a history of art but must also turn it into the needs of the present. Both the lover and the artist put themselves into their objects of devotion, and then by this placement of the self also changes the object. The distinctiveness of the object emerges as it begins to reflect back a sense of their identity and their place in the world. This connection between the suburbs and art may be true and longstanding, but it may also be in need of new metaphors along which the materiality of the art work and the trajectory of our perception can meet and find new meaning. I suggest that another answer to Michael's question rests in the relation between machine and body.
The metaphoric links between objects and symbols are made more explicit when we consider the Greek words for body. The Greek language differentiates between 'soma' - the body that works and functions, and 'kormi' - the body that dreams and loves. In pop songs we hear of the kormi which is a victim of causes, traps and triangles. The tender side of the beauty and the hard side of seduction are both played out on the kormi.
Piccinini's Car Nuggets are as tender as the kormi and are also cool seduction machines. They invite you to hug, stroke and caress their surface. Yet, just as they entice you to open your arms, they also resist being engulfed. Their scale is just beyond the reach of our bodies. That little bit too rotund, their hips a little too broad, and their ridges slightly cutting as you lean into their shape. Their alluring symmetry does not mirror back the fit of the desired kormi of a lover. Piccinini has decorated their skin in the way a tattoo announces feelings, it is bold and explicit, it is also on the vital section of the body. The soma of the car, the gills of the air vents, or the bonnet that covers the engine, are the erogenous zones for custom designers. On motorbikes the libidinal drive is even more defined, the fuel tank and the battery covers, the section that is between your legs and over your heart, is where there is space for the symbol to lean into the banking of the body as it moves with the curve and line of the machine.
A body of work also turns to face the body of the world. The ambition an artist holds for their work is that it can find a place in the world, which is neither confined to the suburbs nor to the gallery, but is somehow between and within these places. Today our place in the world is haunted by unspecified threats, unpredictable disasters and saturated with insecurity and anxiety. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterises the mood of the world body as being covered by 'ambient fear'. Piccinini's large panel work Carlo Guillani One Night Lover, which depicts the face of the young protestor killed by Italian police outside the G8 meeting in Genoa on 20 July 2001, poses another question about art and politics as it ponders the gaze of an adolescent, whose innocent looks concealed a troubled past, whose tender kormi hid a violent soma, and whose little defiance aimed at nothing less than the whole wave of globalization. Was this a futile gesture, a senseless death, a tragi-comic descent into the symbolic catastrophe of global politics, or a reminder that Carlo's kormi, like the body in the Greek pop song, is a victim to your cause. He is the symbol of the new world body politic, the surface over which the machine seduced us into believing it can be at one with the world.