Originally published: Atmosphere | Autosphere | Biosphere
by Edward Colless (2001)
That celebrated Scottish sheep Dolly, the first cloned animal in history, was introduced to an astonished public in 1997. Now, in the first months of the twenty-first century, we have been advised to make room for an even more alarming arrival. SO1 is the blandly administrative acronym for the world's first Synthetic Organism; a living creature manufactured by human technology from inorganic chemical material. It may only be a microbe in a Petri dish sitting in a research laboratory somewhere in Texas, but it has as much potential for unsettling the human race as a visit from a UFO warship the size of Manhattan.
Of course, we have in science fiction movies and novels imaginatively rehearsed the arrival of creatures like SO1, much as we have imagined a world overrun by clones and genetic mutations or invaded by extraterrestrials. Patricia Piccinini has thought about the coming of SO1 for years. So it is only appropriate that her latest artificial life form, fleetingly seen as it scurried across a wall of monitors in her installation The Breathing Room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is named SO2 in honour of its predecessor. SO2 is a more complex, and more individualised, version of the creatures that have inhabited her virtual nurseries since 1994, when she launched her 'Mutant Genome Project', a parody of a biotechnological commercial enterprise. This project (a series of digital photographs and installations) featured the LUMP (Lifeform with Unevolved Mutant Properties) as a comically monstrous commodity produced by the IVF market and eugenics research.
The LUMP was a human baby, the artist's press statement at the time put it, as if redesigned by an engineer and an advertising agency. An abstract mask and funky logo modelled in shiny plastic with stick-on organs (sky blue nodule eyes and unexpressive but full lips), it was reminiscent as much of Mr Potato Head as of a Picasso nude. The LUMP's most memorable appearance was in a set of large slick, glossy photographs from 1996, where it was displayed in the arms of the radiant young sexy TV personality Sophie Lee, whose digitally enhanced skin and hair seemed as synthetic and unblemished as the LUMP's. In the enveloping and cinematic widescreen shot of Psychotourism, we look down on Lee as she backs up to the rim of a frighteningly deep, Martian-like canyon, holding her LUMP protectively to her side away from us. There is a defiant, wild look in her immaculately made-up eyes and wet pout, like the fierce resistance in a little girl's expression when ordered by a parent to surrender her favourite doll. She'd rather die than give it up. Come any closer, she seems to be saying, and I'll jump. Why the trauma? Because her LUMP is part of her. Of course, the digital scenery is no more realistic than the digital creature cradled in the crook of her elbow. The threat is a melodramatic outburst of childish possessiveness. In the same way, this maternal protection of the LUMP is a parody of motherhood.
But there is a threat in the work that isn't dismissed as easily. A lump is unformed matter, which often suggests something inert, unsightly, dumb and in the way. If that matter is flesh, it's common enough to associate a lump with a dangerous, chaotic growth. A tumour, for instance. A lump is not just an awkwardness of flesh, it can be a malignancy. Piccinini's LUMP may be a parody of a beautiful baby, but it may also be a cancer. Both a fetish, in other words, and a curse. Piccinini's virtual madonna is as ambivalent in its sexuality, then, as any icon that has attempted to depict the procreative copulation of human and non-human. But the frivolous deformity of the LUMP lies in the clarification and simplification of the very attributes that make it affectionate and lovable rather than an ugly duckling; the very features that reduce it to a senseless toy.
This compound of nausea, ridicule and desire was forcefully reiterated in the 1997 series of photographs called Protein Lattice in which a female professional fashion model, posed nude in a dimensionless studio space, plays idly with a hairless rat that has a life size human ear growing from its back. This digitally generated fantastic rat was derived from a real and shocking laboratory specimen, the host for a parasitic human organ eventually farmed for plastic surgery. No longer fully a rat, but a hybrid species of rat-body/human-ear, in Piccinini's photos this little creature no longer is a laboratory animal either, but a hybrid function of pet and sex-toy or fashion accessory. As naked and clean as the digitally airbrushed model, the rat exists in a super-space habitat, hybrid of the medical lab and the Photoshop computer file. Like the rat-body, the body of the female model is equally the host for a parasitic technology. She too is an enigmatic native of a hybrid super-space. Enlarged to advertising billboard scale on a city building, she too is farmed for cosmetic surgery.
Genetically splice the cartoon characters Ren and Stimpy into the laboratory rat, and we might have Piccinini's latest progeny, SO2. She describes it affectionately as resembling a platypus. 'And when scientists in England received the first platypus specimens from Australia,' she explains, 'they regarded them as a hoax. We are today seeing similarly unbelievable, unreal creatures from a new world of biotechnology.' But SO2 seems less of a composite, less like a devil in Hieronymous Bosch's dream of hell, than something abnormally unformed or stalled in its development. Embryonic rather than hybrid. In Waiting for Jennifer SO2 sits in the passenger seat of an EH Holden, parked outside a familiar Australian suburban house, looking devotedly up to the young man in the driver's seat who stares past it, out the window of the car. How could the driver be so composed with this obscenely naked mutant sitting next to him, with its soft folds of naked, pink skin similar to that on a newborn pig or mole and a huge, broad penile head that almost seems too heavy for its body? The reason, we gather from the title, is that he's waiting for his girlfriend.
Both the boy and the car, the artist reveals, are 'types from my past: a classic Australian car, and a generic Australian boy—the sort you aspired to go out with as a teenager.' If the car and the boy are from the artist's past, the mutant creature SO2 is imported from a brave new, future world in which natural reproduction and parenthood have become obsolete. Ironically, SO2 is like a cartoon caricature of an aborted human foetus, grotesquely surviving as a pet animal. A futuristic fantasy spliced into a nostalgic scene suggestive of teenage sexual adventures: perhaps SO2, as the overlooked attendant to the pubescent desire, simultaneously phallic and foetal in a senseless metaphor, is a phantasmic image of the sexuality that is ambivalently asserted and denied—induced and abhorred—in Piccinini's biosphere. This hyperrealist suburban boy and his pet foetus compose the elements of a mutant Genome Project's mapping of post-human maternity.