by Patricia Piccinini (2009)
This piece takes place in a darkened, apparently deserted house in the suburban twilight. It is a large, but not quite grand house. Unremarkable, except for the front door that hangs open in the gathering dusk. As we move through the house the stillness is broken only by the occasional rustling behind the curtains or in the shadows beneath the furniture. Clearly the house, while deserted, is not abandoned. Everything is in its place and there is no suggestion of chaos or disturbance. We wonder about the occupants, and what might have happened to them as we move up the stairs. The camera is steady, a succession of static shots that move calmly through the house, underscoring the placid yet eerie atmosphere of the space.
As we move into the master bedroom we get the first sight of the girl. She is lying face down on the floor, in the middle of the room. The shock of her presence and immobility is mitigated slightly as the camera moves in closer and we can see the rise and fall of her breathing. Clearly she is not dead, and there is no sign of a struggle, but what is she doing there? Is she dozing or has she passed out? On reflection, neither possibility seems especially reassuring...
At about this time, we begin to get a better sense of what is responsible for the little movements in the corners and shadows of the house. Small, hairy creatures can be glimpsed, moving with a series of awkward, shuffling hops. They are neither large nor particularly threatening animals, but their furtive motion and gloomy locations give them a ominous appearance.
There are a number of these little creatures, and they are all moving towards the prone figure. As the camera pulls back, we realise that the little girl is ringed by them. For a moment she is like a suburban Guliver surrounded by furry, shambling Liliputians. As they emerge from the gloom and approach the girl, their air of menace diminishes significantly. What could they possibly do to her? They seem more like puppies – wondering why their unconscious owner won’t play with them – than monsters. However, even as we think of this, we also remember stories of dead dog owners eaten by their own pets. What do they want with her? There is clearly some motive behind their deliberate encirclement of the inert child. There is the sense that they have waited until the girl is quiet and the house is still before emerging from their shadowy hiding spots to investigate her. As if they had always been their, but had waited for this particular, unexpected moment when they might safely approach.
One particular creature, closest to the girl’s head, moves towards her. It leans back on its haunches and, with some effort, rears back to expose its chest, or belly. An orifice is visible, and this is wrestled open by a pair of glistening offspring, nestled within. This is no fanged maw but instead a pouch, and the mother is not attacking as much as making herself vulnerable. Again, the motive for this gesture is ambiguous. Is she introducing her young to the girl or offering someone else’s child a glimpse of her own? Or is she perhaps educating her own babies? Watch out for these things, kids, she might murmur to them, they’re dangerous.
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The Gathering is a video work that focuses on one of my enduring fascinations. Time and again my work returns to children, and their ambiguous relationships with the (only just) imaginary animals that I create. Children embody a number of the key issues in my work. Obviously they directly express the idea of genetics - both natural and artificial - but beyond that they also imply the responsibilities that a creator has to their creations. The innocence and vulnerability of children is powerfully emotive and evokes empathy - their presence softens the hardness of some of the more difficult ideas, but it can also elevate the anxiety level. The children in my works are young enough to accept the strangeness and difference of my world without difficulty. The world is totally new to them – they just take it in. They have no expectation and are always amazed but rarely surprised. As such, they hint at the speed at which the extraordinary becomes commonplace in contemporary society. Beyond that, the act of giving birth becomes a commonality between species as well as a gesture of independence, because being able to reproduce is a vital prerequisite for self-determination. Children become a testament to this.
I often use children in my work to evoke the idea of vulnerability. However, it is often difficult to work out who is the most vulnerable. Often the creatures are reliant on us and at our mercy. We should never forget that we most deserve the cliched title of ‘the most fearsome predator on the planet’. It is the Great White Shark that should fear us, not the other way around. Yet in The Gathering it is the little girl – the human, us – that is vulnerable. The situation is uncomfortable. The creatures are just too close and it’s creepy. It is ambiguous whether there is any animosity or just curiosity. As the narrative progresses , we realise that it is not about the girl at all, as we might expect. It is really all about the creatures. The girl is the alien, the odd creature, and they are the small community that has some out to examine her. She is oblivious and they are active and inquisitive.
The Gathering is a particularly dark work for me. The shadowy stillness of the empty house suggests a world where the grown ups have been called away unexpectedly and we cannot tell when, if ever, they will be back. We have no explanation for the girl’s unconsciousness – a nap, narcolepsy or something more ominous – except that she does appear to be quite peaceful. Unlike the majority of the creatures that I have conceived, I do not have a strong idea of what these creatures are ‘for’. Instead, I imagine them to be some sort of mistake or by-product that has escaped into the world and lives in the shadows just beyond our perceptions. Apparently we are never very far from a rat...