Originally published: Artist Statement for Robert Miller Gallery, NYC
by Patricia Piccinini (2004)
Bodyguard (for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater) is the first in a series of works called Nature's Little Helpers. At its core, the work is about good intentions or, more specifically, doing the wrong thing for the right reason. The Golden Helmeted Honeyeater is a small, beautifully coloured bird that lives in my home state of Victoria in Australia. There are only fifteen pairs of this bird left in the wild, and captive breeding programs are working hard to keep the bird from extinction.
I have designed the bodyguard to help protect the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater, from people, from encroachment, and to help support its rather strange eating habits. The HeHo, as it is called by those who work with it, eats nectar and tree sap. It has a relationship with a possum; the possum bites into the trunks of certain gum trees, causing sap to run out and the HeHo eats the sap. As the natural environment of these animals are encroached upon by humans there are less gums trees, and less possums and less HeHos.
The bodyguard has been genetically engineered to be a fierce and loyal protector for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater. He will protect it from exotic predators, and he has powerful jaws that allow him to bite into trees, to provide the birds with sap.
In the western world, we have a long history of looking to new technologies to find a rapid fix to a difficult problem. In Australia, in the early twentieth century, solid scientific research led to the introduction of the cane toad to help eliminate the cane beetle that was ravaging the valuable sugar cane that grows in the north. The cane toad quickly wiped out the beetles, and then moved on to numerous native species, which had no defences. The cane toads have become an unstoppable force, their range growing every year.
The answers to questions are rarely as simple as we hope, and often our understanding of situations not nearly as clear as we would like to think.
Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. When I look at the bodyguard I see a creature that, while fierce, is not cruel. His armoured back and strong jaws give way to a soft belly. The ethical environmental issues are interesting, but they are just background. More interesting for me is the possibility of the unpredictable relationship between the HeHo and its bodyguard, and between them and us.