by Patricia Piccinini (2005)
Ironically, I didn’t grow up in an environment with a lot of animals around me, but for me, the essence of life is to nurture and be nurtured, and that is something that cuts across species. Whenever I see animals nurturing their infants, it reinforces that idea, which is really strong in Big Mother. It was inspired by two events in my life:
I was born in Sierra Leone, my mother was an English teacher, my father was an Italian who came to build an extra wing to a school there. I lived there until I was three, when we returned to Italy and then eventually migrated to Australia when I was seven. Anyway, if you have lived in Africa, you always have a lot of stories. One I heard from a friend was about their baby sister being abducted by a grieving baboon. Often when baboons lose their babies, they really grieve, and they actually continue to carry the dead infant around with them until it disintegrates in their arms. It seems that this particular baboon mother was grieving so badly that she decided to take a human baby to replace her lost child. To me, this story tells us that in the face of grief, and the pain of losing a child, the differences between different species aren’t that important. We have more in common in the love for children than we differ genetically – and even then the genetic differences are actually pretty tiny. I find this really beautiful.
The second thing that inspired me to make Big Mother came from the difficulties I had breat-feeding my son Hector. He really didn't want to suck which made it hard to get the milk going and so my sister suggested I try breast feeding her baby, who was older and more hungry. I tried, and through breast feeding my sisters baby I learned how to feed Hector. It was really interesting how strange and unusual it is for a mother to breast-feed another person's baby. Even stranger perhaps is how much more comfortable we are drinking the breast milk of another animal – say a cow – than another human being.
Those experiences became Big Mother. When the visitor engages the sculpture, they see a creature nurturing a human baby. However, this is a melancholy scene. The creature is made to nurture, but is just her job. Like any creature, she is programmed to love, but she will always be second to the human mother of the children she nurtures. She will never have a child that is fully hers. I sometimes imagine that the nurse is contemplating kidnapping her charge, which I why she is so anxious. So this is a good example of what I do. I try to address ethical questions, but through emotion and empathy. We often tend to approach ethics as something pure and sterile, especially in regards to issues like biotech or GE. In some ways this is useful and important, because sadly ethics and empathy often conflict. However, it also makes them a bit fragile and out of touch with human realities. In the past we communicated ethics through emotionally charged stories; mythology. Myth often act to explain a complex and confusing world and clarify our place and responsibilities in it. These myths are usually populated by people and other beings – gods and creatures – that we cannot actually see in the real world but which reflect some aspect of it. In some ways I am attempting to create mythical beings that reflect complex ethical issues of our times. However, at the same time myths are also just beautiful stories, and sometimes the characters are just as important as the grander ideas.