Fast forward: accelerated evolution
Originally published: Call of the Wild (catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
by Rachel Kent (2002)
Patricia Piccinini is an artist who explores the frontiers of science and technology through her sculptures, photographs and video environments. Since the early 1990s, Piccinini has pursued an interest in the human form and its potential for manipulation and enhancement through bio-technological intervention. From the mapping of the human genome to the growth of human tissue and organs from stem cells, Piccinini's art charts a terrain in which scientific progress and ethical questions are intertwined.
Ideas about nature and its simulation are central to Piccinini's works, inviting us to question what is 'real' and what is not. Made with the aid of computer technology, they collapse reality and artifice, and propose that nature is as much a human invention as it is an empirical concept. In the artist's world, birds inhabit a computer-generated forest and the sun sets over a shimmering, digital ocean. A menagerie of human and animal life inhabits this wonderland, modified by and even given life from within the computer. From synthetic landscapes to artificial life forms, Piccinini creates a world in which fact, fiction and fantasy co-exist. She begs the question: what, in our rapidly changing world, constitutes 'the real' anyway?
Contemporary advertising and the culture of consumerism also finds recurrent expression in Piccinini's art practice. Characterised by their meticulous finish and smooth, seductive surfaces, the individual works attract just as they repel with their often aberrant subject matter. Piccinini understands well the language of advertising, and its ability to transform even the most banal product: shown in the right light, junk food becomes a delicious meal just as cosmetic enhancement becomes a fashion statement, or Viagra a lifestyle. Applied to the field of medical technology, with its ties to commercial enterprise (multinational drug companies, private research laboratories and gene patents, for example), the possibilities seem without limit.
Personal identity and the issues surrounding it lie at the core of Piccinini's project. Her works invite the question: what is it that makes us who we are? For if the body can be unmade and remade through technology, what implications does this have for our identity as human beings? At this very moment, television reports about the insertion of surrogate pig organs into ailing human bodies have sparked debate about the nature of identity and its potential contamination. The benefits and drawbacks of gene therapy as a cure for illness, of genetically modified crops with their improved disease resistance, of cloning and its possibilities for infertility, and of stem cell research with its vast medical potential: each development shifts us further away from an imagined original or 'essential' self, and makes equally problematic our past definitions of the natural.
Piccinini's exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled Call of the Wild, presents a selection of key works by the artist that engage with these and other related themes. Encompassing five years, from 1997 to the present, the digital photographs, sculptures and video installations in this exhibition scrutinise the breakthroughs offered by contemporary technology, proposing outcomes that marry the real and the imagined. The complex relationship between humanity, nature and technology is teased out in individual works, their ambivalence towards their subject matter suggesting that the basic concepts of right or wrong may be all too simple. In these works, the future does not seem so very far away: what we dare only imagine now may, in fact, be imminently attainable. In a world where science fiction pre-figures reality with alarming regularity, we can be assured that the fantastic will become the ordinary within a matter of time.
Protein Lattice (1997), the earliest work in the exhibition, comprises a suite of digital photographs and television monitors. On the monitors we see a rat trapped within a seemingly endless maze, at the centre of which lies a Petrie dish. The work takes its cue from the medical breakthrough that saw scientists growing human tissue for the first time in a three-dimensional, synthetic protein lattice. Using this technology, scientists could cultivate human tissue in the shape and form of bodily organs, which could later be transplanted to a living person. Made famous in newspapers and on television screens around the globe, this discovery was presented to viewers in the form of a rat with a human ear attached to its back.
Piccinini presents five large, glossy digital images in her installation, featuring young female models surrounded by rats bearing human ears on their backs. The stark contrast of beauty with ugliness, or the natural with the unnatural, is emphasised by the girls' physical perfection and the side-show freakishness of their four legged companions. Nonetheless, the works pose the question: is the airbrushed, computer-enhanced artificiality of the girls really so very different from the 'unnatural' appearance of the rats? The use of the cool, glamorous language of advertising demonstrates the ways in which technology can smooth over the aberrant and make it palatable - and even desirable, like the models themselves. The association of consumer products, from cars to telephones, with sexy young women in advertising campaigns is not new. In this work, the juxtaposition is taken to its extreme, whilst the appearance of the rat in the maze suggests that we are all trapped in a relentless search for individual identity within an increasingly homogenous, media-saturated world.
Extending on themes of advertising and desire are Piccinini's more recent truck and 'car nugget' sculptures. In these works, the inanimate and organic are conflated to create a new, hybrid creature for the 21st millennium. Piccinini's pink and blue Truck Babies (1998) are made to human scale from existing truck parts: fenders, whistles, bumpers and headlights. Although we only see them as the monsters of the road, trucks too, the artist surmises, must have an infancy. Cute in the extreme, they bear childlike characteristics from the curve of their bottoms to the eager, plaintiff tooting of their horns. As visualisations of our tendency to give human characteristics (and even names) to inanimate objects - from our cars to our computers - they reveal the efficacy of contemporary advertising and its ability to generate identification between purchaser and product.
Muddying the division between human and non-human, the Truck Babies suggest moreover a union of steel and flesh reminiscent of that proposed by writer JG Ballard in his novel Crash. Piccinini's Giblets (2001), individually chromed automotive parts that resemble strange, abstracted bodily organs, further the analogy between truck and human baby. The exchangeability of metal and flesh is similarly exploited in Piccinini's Panel Work (2002), a suite of custom made aluminium panels which have been powder-coated with sparkling, holographic automotive paint. In this work the smooth contours, dips and scallops of painted metal find resonance with the curves, puckers and perforations of the human body in all its nakedness. This relationship is further played out in the video installation Breathing Room (2000, not included in this exhibition); in this work we view, in close-up, the contoured, perforated skin of an unidentified creature rising and falling in increasingly rapid tempo as it becomes agitated and then panic-stricken.
Piccinini's car nuggets, developed in prototype in 1999 and fully realised as Car Nuggets GL (2001-02), represent the 'essence' of the modern car with its sleek curves, designer detailing and custom painting. Compressed into multi-coloured, nugget-shaped discs, they epitomise the fast-food nature of consumerism with its attractive packaging, ready accessibility, and standardised forms. As one writer observes, cars are the quintessential machine of our time: intimately familiar to us, home to our most private moments, a site where body and metal meet.i Artificiality and the sheen of the new permeates these works, their gleaming surfaces and catchy by-line ('they're good for you!') epitomising all that is attractive and repellent in the world of capitalism. On viewing these works, we might conclude that the showy appeal of consumerism is ultimately confounded by the shallowness of its wares.
The merging of the natural and the artificial has become so ubiquitous in recent decades as to pass by almost unnoticed. Writing on the tailoring of nature parks in the United States to the expectations of their visitors, for example, one critic observes: 'The great parkways of Northern America ... have been built to please a 'motorist's' aesthetic - one which is essentially visual and has ruled out taste, touch and smell; for which landscape becomes an event in 'automotive space', and is comparable in its one-dimensionality to the view of it had in aerial photography. In the process the designers of these scenic routes have literally instructed their users in the 'beauties' of nature by promoting some landscapes at the expense of others, by removing whatever bits of it were deemed unsightly, and by restricting all activities incompatible with the parkway aesthetic'.ii Thus, they conclude, 'The seasons begin to be synchronized with the tourist calendar: June is Rhododendron Time, autumn is Fall Foliage Time, winter is Wonderland'.iii
The ability to do away with nature altogether, and replicate it through digital means, has further confounded previously established categories of the natural. Taken to the extreme, a digital landscape becomes potentially more seductive than the real thing - greener, more lush - until we forget what the original looked like, or prefer the surrogate. One need only think of the robust, chemical-laden fruits in the local supermarket and their smaller, misshapen organic cousins for comparison. Swell (2000), a multi-channel video projection presented in a large, darkened gallery space, takes the form of an ocean vista. Situated upon the crest of the waves as they roll in and outwards in rhythmic motion, our perspective is one of immersion within the environment around us. This is not, however, a space in which we can relax for long, for the sheer force of the waves creates an atmosphere of turbulence, as though we might be sucked under their glistening surface at any moment.
On closer inspection, an anomaly is also evident: the work is in fact computer-generated. Replicating the motion of waves to near perfection, Swell points to a new kind of environment in which the 'real' has become redundant, other than as historical precedent. Lustre (1999), another video work by the artist, is also presented in this exhibition. Shown on two flat-screen monitors, it depicts the shiny, contoured surface of a car nugget as it revolves in slow motion. In its treatment of surface - watery, slippery, reflective, seductive -solid and liquid states become indistinguishable.
Piccinini's most recent projects extend her interests directly into the realm of artificial life forms, as well as stem cell and cloning technologies. SO2 (2001) represents the latest addition to the artist's fantastic menagerie. Named in reference to SO1, the world's first synthetic, laboratory-bred micro-organism, SO2 takes the form of a 'siren mole' with a shovel-like snout, a long, low body and a stumpy tail. SO2's taxonomic name is Exellocephala Parthenopa, the former word meaning "extremely strange head" and the latter a reference to the mythical siren Parthenopa, who was washed ashore at Naples and whose mysterious origins remained forever unknown.
SO2 is not the first of Piccinini's creations that have come out of her extensive research and consultation with scientists and other industry professionals. Created in the virtual space of the computer and then modelled in three dimensions, with assistance from animatronics and prosthetics experts, SO2 debuted in the wombat enclosure of the Melbourne Zoo, an uncanny, lifelike addition whose origins could not quite be placed. Despite signage explaining Piccinini's project, zoo visitors were perplexed by the appearance of something so suggestive of life - so convincingly real - and the wombats' interaction with the creature served to compound their uncertainty.
SO2 highlights some of the ethical issues that face us in the new millennium. It invites the questions: what do we classify as life, and on what basis? Why do we create this life, and where does it 'belong'? And at what point does something originated in a laboratory become a living entity, with certain rights and privileges? As we approach an age of cyborgs, neuro-computers, and other creations that marry the organic and the synthetic, questions of identity and ethics are unavoidable. On the use of animal brain tissue in machines, for example, NASA's chief bio-ethicist comments, 'You are creating an organism that by its very definition could not exist in nature .... we need to start having a moral conversation about the implications - about how far we should take them, and what we shouldn't do'.iv
SO2's artificiality does not form the artist's primary concern, however. Her interest is instead directed towards our role in creating this new life form, and our ongoing responsibility towards it. Discussing SO2, Piccinini has cited Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the famed story of a scientist and his murderous monster. Doctor Frankenstein's fatal flaw is not, according to the artist, his desire to create new life. It is his failure to take responsibility for his creation: 'He was not a good parent'.v Piccinini's siren mole is not well suited to survival in the wild: with its lack of hair, pale skin, stubby legs and cumbersome body, it could easily fall victim to predators or the elements. Developed within a laboratory environment, its closest relations would be the scientists behind its creation; and it would be their responsibility to nurture and care for the mole, like parents to a child.
It is these ideas which have inspired Piccinini's Science Story (2001-02) photographs. Documented in a laboratory at the Melbourne Zoo, actors in the guise of scientists interact in the images with the vulnerable siren mole that they have created. Whatever form they take and however bizarre they may be, the artist seems to be telling us, our creations cannot just be cast aside once we have given them life. A further image, Superevolution (2001), shows two siren moles in their natural habitat, looking not unlike domestic pets in an open, leafy garden.
Since completing her synthetic organism, Piccinini has turned her attention back to the human world - albeit a highly modified one. In Still Life with Stem Cells (2002), exhibited as part of the 2002 Biennale of Sydney, Piccinini presented a sculpture of a young girl playing with a coterie of fleshy 'humanoid' shapes. The bizarre progeny of embryonic stem cell technology, through which undifferentiated cells may be grown into all manner of tissue and organs, the creatures are undeniably human with their mottled skin, tufts of hair and beak-like orifices. Despite their hideous appearance, however, Piccinini's aim is not simply to warn against the perils of ESC technology. Rather, the sculpture provides an opportunity to explore where the technology could lead, taken to an imaginary extreme. As with all of Piccinini's previous works, Still Life with Stem Cells reveals a certain ambivalence towards its subject-matter: neither outright criticism or celebration, it acts more as a prompt to stimulate discussion about origins, ethics and consequences.
For her MCA exhibition, Piccinini has created the second in this new series of sculptural works. Through the body and face of a seven year old boy, the work explores the technology of cloning - and, in this instance, cloning gone awry. On entering the gallery space, we see a young boy, turned slightly away from us and leaning against the wall. He is dressed casually and in his hands he holds a computer game, which pings and blips as though in play. All aspects of the boy's appearance appear to be normal until we encounter his face, which is prematurely aged to resemble that of an old man.
This work recalls the cloning, three years ago now, of Dolly the sheep and her subsequent, accelerated ageing. As a technology that has been fraught with difficulties, cloning has been the focus of much recent media (and cinematic) attention. Despite this, it has existed in various shapes and guises for centuries, from natural cloning in plants, insects and microbes to deliberate cloning in horticulture and inbreeding among humans and in animals. Piccinini's work, like Still Life with Stem Cells, suggests that we examine carefully the technology now on offer to us. As a resource, its potential has yet to be fulfilled. But mishandled, or abused, it might become a contemporary Pandora's Box.
Piccinini has spoken on rare occasions of her mother's death from cancer, and of her own hopes for a cure during the final stages of the disease. Both before and since this time, her interest in the human body has found expression through the medium of art. With its weaknesses and vulnerability, as well as its potential for transformation, the body is a site of endless fascination for Piccinini. Her artworks suggest that we live in a world where the natural may no longer be taken for granted, or the real at face value. The advances of technology, with its profound impact on human subjectivity, have provided fertile subject matter for Piccinini. Her consideration of the ways in which the body, identity, technology are intertwined, proposes that the definitions which once shaped our view of the world have become increasingly problematic. What are we to make of these shifts in perception? And are they to be treated as negative or positive? The artist does not propose answers to the questions that she raises, nor overt judgements. Instead, she invites us to think carefully about what we want from our lives as we move ever forwards into the future. For what we wish for, we might just receive.
Rachel Kent Senior Curator Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydneyi Jacqueline Millner, Plastic Life: Patricia Piccinini and Christopher Langton, exhibition brochure, ANGSW Contemporary Projects, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2000, np.
ii Kate Soper, 'Nature/'nature'', in Robertson et al (Eds), FutureNatural; Nature, science, culture, Routledge, UK, 1996, p.26.
iii Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to Exxon Valdez, Oxford, Blackwell, UK, 1992, quoted in Kate Soper, ibid., p.26.
iv Paul Root Wolpe, Center for Bioethics, Univeristy of Pennsylvania, quoted in Anil Ananthaswamy, 'Mind over Metal', New Scientist, 23 February 2002, p.29.
v Patricia Piccinini, 'Synthetic Organism 2 (SO2): The Siren Mole', Converge; 2002 Adelaide Biennial of Art, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 2002, p.50.