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“Life Clings Closest” at Cairns Art Gallery, Australia, 2019

Text by Patricia Piccinini (2019)

No Fear of Depths (‘No Fear of Depths’)

Installation view (‘The Coup’, ‘Eulogy’, ‘Mistral’, ‘Crimson Wolf’, ‘Radial’, ‘The Osculating Curve’)

Detail of Eulogy (‘Eulogy’)

Installation view (‘The coalescence around a common goal’, ‘The porousness of buoyancy’, ‘A sudden drop in pressure’, ‘The Osculating Curve’, ‘Vanitas’, ‘Eulogy’, ‘Surrogate’)

Installation view (‘Surrogate’, ‘Progenitor’, ‘The Osculating Curve’)

The Osculating Curve (‘The Osculating Curve’)

Detail of The Osculating Curve (‘The Osculating Curve’)

Installation view (‘Hector (on carpet)’, ‘Laura (with Sandwich)’, ‘The Coup’)

Unfurled (‘Unfurled’)

Detail of Unfurled (‘Unfurled’)

Installation view (‘Shoeform (Bloom)’, ‘Defender’, ‘Shadowbat’, ‘Shoeform (Sprout)’)

Detail of Defender (‘Defender’)

Shoeform (Sprout) (‘Shoeform (Sprout)’)

Shoeform (Sprout) (‘Shoeform (Sprout)’)

Installation view (‘Shoeform (Sprout)’, ‘Shadowbat’)

Shadowbat (‘Shadowbat’)

Detail of Shadowbat (‘Shadowbat’)

Installation view (‘Shoeform (Bloom)’, ‘Cleaner’)

Detail of Shoeform (Bloom) (‘Shoeform (Bloom)’)

Shoeform (Ovaries) (‘Shoeform (Ovaries)’)

Installation view (‘Shoeform (Ovaries)’, ‘Shoeform (Bloom)’, ‘Cleaner’)

Cleaner (‘Cleaner’)

‘Life Clings Closest’ brings together works from the last fifteen years for my practices alongside a number of works created specifically for Cairns. For me, this has been an opportunity to continue to explore the themes and issues that have long fascinated me, which are in many ways exemplified by the unique environment and culture of Australia’s tropical north. While I don’t claim to be able to fully understand or represent the complexity of this place, there are many aspects of what exists here that resonates with my and practice.

Ideas such as evolution, the environment, technology, family and maternity, the artificial and the natural are all at the heart of my practice, and these ideas are explored through a focus on relationships, narrative and emotion. Like many, I struggle with the challenge of being able to represent the challenges that we face as a culture and as a species without being paralysed by anxiety, or being lead astray by a belief of my own faultlessness. I am not an expert, but I am a stakeholder, and a listener and my works are attempts to start a conversation with the viewer, rather than provide definitive answers.

There are layers to my works. Firstly there is what they look like and then there are the stories that they tell, finally there are the points where they intersect with the real world: which us emotionally. I sometimes describe my works as acting like modern myths: they are stories that try to explain the complexities of the world but they are also stories, engaging narratives with an emotional dimension. They are not the truth, but they are not lies.

Some works are more optimistic than others. That is not because I think everything is fine. Far from it. It is because sometimes we have to imagine the world as it should be in order to work to towards creating it. Pessimism, while often justifiable, can be petrifying, it can frighten us into immobility, and that can be counterproductive.

The exhibition begins with one of my most optimistic works, Unfurled. This is a work that attempts to imagine a different sort of relationship between people and nature; one that is more equitable and with a more shared outlook. The world of Unfurled is one where people are comfortable to see themselves as one animal amongst many, a collaborator rather than and controller. It is a work that refuses to accept the impossible naivety of such optimism. However, in doing so we are forced to consider the remoteness of such a world.

That is the difference between optimism and naivety; the difference between hoping for something better as opposed to seeing something that isn’t there. As such, there are a few shades to this work. It could be seen as a portrait of two predators, the human and the owl, both ostensibly wise but undeniably dangerous. I find that reading clever but it doesn’t suit my overly sincere character. A sadder reading might suit me better, because I find optimism pretty hard to do. We could also see this a portrait of two endangered species. The girl is drawn from images of indigenous Amazonians. In fact, the work is a direct response to a conversation I had with an Amazonian elder who I met in Brazil. His people live in a precarious balance between a threatened environment and an inconstant and paternalistic dominant culture. Like the owl, their land is under constant threat and they must fight and adapt to survive.

I’m not totally comfortable with this reading either, and fortunately it doesn’t stand up to a closer look at the work. When we look at ‘Unfurled’ we see strength in the faces of its protagonists rather than pathos. Despite everything, these two wonderful beings survive. We see two figures with a shared viewpoint, both strong and vulnerable but not intimidated.

It’s interesting in how difficult it is talk about the girl and the owl in a way that emphasises their similarity and equivalency. Am I suggesting that the girl is somehow less than human? Certainly not, and certainly no less valuable. So much of western culture and even language itself is based around the idea of the innate difference between humans and animals and the human’s innate superiority in this relationship. This is the core of so much of our thinking on the environment, and for me intensely problematic. Much of my work focuses on our shared animalness, which is supported by our advancing understanding of DNA and genetics. The differences between ourselves and an owl are profound, but on a DNA level it is less statistically significant than we might expect.

However, in ‘Unfurled’, this connection is complicated by her indigenous heritage. There is a long history of denigrating other cultures as ‘less human’ or ‘more animal’ than ourselves and so I run the risk of invoking this sort of rubbish when I connect the girl and the owl. The girl’s level of humanity is never in question, it is humanity’s self-importance that I question. Ironically, Amazonian culture has much less of a problem with that idea than mine does.

This idea of our animalness, my core belief in a continuum of being where we are just one more kind of animal rather than some sort of radically different and elevated being, can be seen in the many chimeras that inhabit the exhibition. A chimera is both a mythic creature (half lion, half goat) and a technical term for a genetically engineered organism that includes DNA taken from more than one source. The whole reason that we can genetically engineer chimeras, which we can and do create now, is because the DNA itself is common to all life on earth. When I first imagined my own chimeras, the idea of human-based chimera’s was something from either science fiction or theoretical science, but in the intervening years scientific reality has caught up with fiction, and in 2017 the first pig/human chimera embryos where produced in a lab.

I am fascinated by the possibilities that such scientific advances embody. However, I see them an incredibly complex ethical questions, made even more so by the inevitability of human emotion. Like so many things humans make and do, we need to look at how and why we might do it, and figure out how we can use it to make the world better. There are any number of scenarios we can imagine, some great and some terrible, and as a community we need to figure out how to maximise the good outcomes because the reality is that now that we can do it, we will.

‘The Coup’ is a work that embodies the ambiguity of this moment. As we look at this teenage chimera we cannot be sure what his intentions are towards the parrot that has settled on his hand. Does he hope to catch it gently and hold it for just a moment before letting it go, or will he strike more violently, or capture it? When you are in the middle of something, as we are with the technology of genetic engineering, it is often hard to tell how it will end, even when it seems obvious in retrospect. The boy in the ‘The Coup’ represents just such a transitional moment and as such he represents any adolescent. He might personify the technological adolescence that genetic engineering is currently undergoing. We expect artificial nature to be ‘good’, even though real nature is not. This boy is not quite as easy to love as some of my figures, but does he deserve it less?

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that humans are fallible, and ironically the more we know the less likely we are to recognise this. The world is an extraordinarily complex system, and the changes we make can often have unintended consequences. This is a the terrible dilemma we face in all our attempts to fix the world. Is it better to do nothing or to try something that might go wrong? I think of the hubris of the scientists who introduced the cane toad into Australia’s sugarcane fields in order to destroy the cane beetles that was decimating the crop. If you focus on the goal of beetle eradication, you could even argue it was successful. In truth it was of course a massive disaster, and I’m sure everybody involved in the decision had the best of intentions and regrets it enormously. That is the problem: Sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons.

‘Surrogate’ and ‘Progenitor’ come from a series of works that looks at this conundrum. Each work imagines a creature that has been genetically engineered to solve an ecological problem that itself has a human origin. In the case of ‘Progenitor’, the creature has enormous teeth designed to chew hollows into trees to provide a habit for Leadbeater’s Possum. ‘Surrogate’ is engineered to foster puggles for the Northern Hairynosed Wombat, which is notoriously difficult to breed in captivity. In both cases, these are well intentioned and highly complex, technical solutions to problems that stem from a problem rooted in habit-loss due to human land usage.

I have expanded on this idea with three new works for this exhibition. In each, a creature has been engineered to deal with a threat faced by it due to climate change. They have been forcibly evolved to adapt to the changing circumstances of the anthropocene. For example, ocean-borne plastics are a massive problem for all sealife, and sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, and the animals are severely impacted by eating all the rubbish. ‘Cleaner’ equips a turtle with a mechanical shell that features two vacuum intakes to suck up plastic waste before it reaches the animal’s mouth.

’Shadowbat’ approaches the problem of increasing numbers of flying foxes succumbing to heat-stroke by genetically engineering an unwieldy skin umbrella to shade the creature. The Bettong is a nocturnal rat-kangaroo that is especially vulnerable to habitat-loss and feral animal attacks from foxes and cats. Like most native species, this diminutive herbivore plays a vital role in the lifecycles of the environments it occupies. For example, they reduce leave-litter and thus fire load. Also, like bats, they are important players of the process of seed dispersal, so when they are lost the impact reverberates beyond the sadness of the species loss itself. ‘Defender’ re-engineers this gentle creature into a larger, armoured combatant, capable of fending off the feral animals that prey on it. Gone are its vulnerabilities, but with that goes much of its charm.

In the contemporary world, it seems more exciting to propose such technical interventions, even without the possibility to know any potential side-effects, than it is to advocate a change in land usage or prioritising of the rights of non-human animals. Left to their own devices, with the space and resources they evolved in, these animals could certainly rebound, and in a perfect world we would be able to leave them to do so. However, we do not live in such a world, so perhaps it is better to risk the consequences to do something to save them while they still survive. This is further complicated by the issue of climate change. Should we focus on dealing with the cause (climate change) or should we try to take on individual symptoms, the various crises at the species or location level? When I imagined ’Surrogate’ and ‘Progentor’ in the early 2000s, I thought the answer was obvious, but now I am less sure. I cannot offer genuine solutions, but in fact it is quite easy to find any number of much more qualified people who have done the research and can offer scientifically supported and reasonable suggestions of how we should tackle it. As an artist, my clearly propositional solutions are a way to point towards quite serious problems in a manner that is engaging without being terrifying. These works also indicate that if we are going to intervene, then the results will necessarily be different. The question of whether such difference is something we are ok with, is something we are going to have to answer as a culture.

These works explore an area where the possibilities of technological intervention press up against the natural world. This key relationship between the artificial and the natural has long been one of the the core dynamics of my practice. The supposed boundary between the artificial and natural, like the border between human and animal, is often called into question in my work. Are these chimera artificial because they have been engineered or are they natural because the perfectly functional organic creatures? Or is this distinction part of the same arbitrary division that put’s us above animals. I think that this dualistic construction of the world, male/female, nature/culture, human/animal, is a huge part of our problem. As people we like to divide the world like that, but the reality is that it is much more complex. We now know that sex, like so many other things, is a spectrum and ‘male’ and ‘female’ are just two points amongst many.

Worrying about whether the artificial and the natural are really just a spectrum rather than a duality might sound like a very academic thing to worry about, but I think it’s important. Because when you divide the world like this you put people on one side and nature on the other. You create an opposition that is both false and unhelpful. It is unhelpful because if you ask people to choose between themselves and ‘nature’ they will usually choose themselves. And it is false because there are no people without nature.

The other side of this question is also interesting. If nature isn’t separate from human activity, then what is it? How do we arrive at a new understanding of nature that is progressive and positive for all of the species on earth, including humans but not just for humans.

So much of my work is focused on breaking this dichotomy down by imagining a sort of artificial nature. However, there is another side to this which is thinking about an idea of naturalised technology. For many of us, technology is a natural part of everyday life, Even animals and plants are really just components in a massive industrial process that uses them as components or inputs. I am not condemning this. I don’t think it’s that useful to imagine a return to a pre-industrial past. Instead, I’m interested in how we might use the possibilities of this particular hybrid world we live in to create a future that will be better for all of us, including the other species with which we share the world rather than at their expense. This will necessarily include technology. We cannot remove technology from humans any more than we can take hives from bees or nests from birds or tools from orangutans. Works like ‘Cyclepups’ and ‘Radial’ are meditations on the idea of naturalised technology. They imagine a natural lifecycle for vehicles, presenting embryonic motorcycles that resemble sperm or tadpoles. Of course they are metaphorical but they are also celebratory. Their perfectly painted surfaces are a homage to both the seduction of consumer beauty and also customisation where regular people transform generic objects into highly personal expressions.

‘Shoeform’ is a group of new works that I have made for this exhibition, that are related to this idea of naturalised technology. I’m very interested in looking at ways of representing fertility in the most expanded sense. Life, abundance, diversity, fecundity, reproduction, parenthood - all these ideas animate the world that I am trying to make - just as they animate the world around us. I am especially interested in looking for ways to represent this that don’t fall into the traditional clichés and associations that belittle the mother or reduce sensuality to obscenity. In much of my work I am looking for different ways to celebrate life and a different kind of beauty. These works suggest all these ideas in their surreal blending of elements that never quite settle in one category.

These works are quite formal. While they are still narrative, they are largely concerned which aesthetics, shape and colour, which creates a contrast to much of my other work. ‘Eulogy’, for example, is a work that is largely about emotion. In some ways, ‘Eulogy’ is the companion piece to ‘Unfurled’. It represents a similar image of a human interaction with another species, but in this case the dominant note is one of sadness. This sculpture is a tribute to the Blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus), which is a miraculous aquatic creature that lives in the deep seas south of Australia. This fish was relatively unknown to science until deep-sea fishing boats started pulling them up in the 1980s, victims of collateral damage resulting from crab trawling. In the short time since then they have been driven to the brink of extinction. Not deliberately, not because we wanted something from them, but basically by accident.

While it is an apparently uncharismatic creature, the blobfish is extraordinary. Its gelatinous body is almost the same density as sea water, making it perfectly adapted to the immense pressure of the deep ocean. This sculpture is a celebration of the simple, gormless, wonderful existence of the blobfish and all the other unglamorous but marvelous species. It is a eulogy for this particular specimen, supported in death by a very ordinary looking man. Perhaps he is one of the millions of ordinary people who usually neither know nor care much about the fate of the blobfish. Even so, in this work he seems genuinely moved by the fate of this unprepossessing fish, and for me there is hope in that.

In ‘Eulogy’ you can see my interest in empathy, which is a huge part of my practice. I don’t think that you really can, or indeed should, try to understand the ethics of something without emotions. It can easily be argued that such a focus on empathy might distract from a true rational understanding of the issues, but in fact that is exactly what I am aiming to do. Emotions are messy and they do get in the way of rational discourse. The empathetic nature of the work deliberately complicates the ideas. It is one thing to argue for or against something when it is just an intellectual issue. However, things change when emotions are involved. I like to think that my work understands that the point at which ‘good’ becomes ‘bad’ does not stand still, which is why it is so difficult to find. Ethics are not set like morals, they have to be constantly negotiated. Bioethics are especially flexible, which makes them especially difficult. However, sometimes our feelings find a way through these difficulties, and we are able to create connections and bonds that defy the expectations of others. I think that makes them worth the effort.

This use of empathy to create connections is especially important to me. On many levels, my work is about relationships, which is why I so often show a relationship rather than and a single figure. In am interested in exploring that relationship within the work, but also the possible relationship between the viewer and the work. Research has shown that emotions are learned. They are cultural as well as personal which is why there are some emotions that we don’t have name for, or that only exist in other languages. I am particularly interested in a feeling that we don’t seem to have a word for in English. I would describe it as the realisation of a feeling of warmth towards something that you were previously disturbed by. It is a sort of anti-xenophobia, and it is interesting to me that we have a word for xenophobia but not for this. ‘Xenophilia’ is something different, it is a love of this exotic. This is more about realising that the ‘xeno’ is not actually so strange. If I want viewers to get anything from my work it is to experience this:a journey from disturbance to warmth.

Usually this is a layer on top of the underlying conceptual foundations of the work. It is a way to experience the work rather than what it is about. You can see this in ‘No Fear of Depths’, one of the works that I have created specifically for this exhibition. This work brings together many of the key relationships that I am interested in exploring through my practice; the relationship between the artificial and the natural, between humans and the environment. The relationships between beings, within families and between strangers. The work shows a young girl resting in the arms of some sort of marine mammal. Much as the girl is transitioning towards adulthood, the creature appears to be caught at an evolutionary point between the land and the sea. It is a gentle scene, and it reminds us that we are nurtured by the nature around us.

It is my hope that this exhibition presents its audience with a world. This is a world where things mix and intermingle, where nothing stays in its place. It is a world where animal, plant, machine and human unite and commingle. Ultimately, this world is interested in a question: If it is so hard to figure out where one thing starts and another ends, can we really continue to believe in the barriers that separate us?