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“En Kælig Verden” at Arken Museum of Art, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2019

Text by Dea Antonson (2019)

Installation view (‘The Welcome Guest’, ‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed magenta yellow)’, ‘Still Life with Stem Cells’, ‘The Bond’, ‘Strength of One Arm’, ‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed cyan yellow)’, ‘Unfurled’)

Installation view (‘The Bond’, ‘Bootflower’)

Installation view (‘Teenage Metamorphosis’, ‘Kindred’)

Detail of The Bond (‘The Bond’)

Installation view (‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed orange pink)’, ‘(reversed yellow blue)’, ‘Skywhale’, ‘The Welcome Guest’)

Installation view (‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed pink yellow)’, ‘Strength of One Arm’, ‘Skywhale’, ‘The Welcome guest’)

Installation view (‘Skywhale’, ‘The Welcome Guest’, ‘Still Life with Stem Cells’, ‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed magenta yellow)’)

Installation view (‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed cyan yellow)’, ‘Still Life with Stem Cells’, ‘Unfurled’, ‘Self Portrait’, ‘Strength of One Arm’)

Installation view (‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed cyan yellow)’, ‘Unfurled’, ‘Self Portrait’)

Installation view (‘Undivided’, ‘The Weavers' Suite (reversed orange pink)’, ‘(reversed yellow blue)’, ‘(reversed pink yellow)’)

Installation view (‘The Coup’, ‘The Field’, ‘The Avian Trilogy (Nest-bound hummingbird)’, ‘(Eagle in flight with helmets)’, ‘(Twelve eggs at rest)’)

Installation view (‘The Coup’, ‘The Field’)

Installation view (‘The Field’)

Installation view (‘The Field’, ‘Bunker’)

Installation view (‘The Field’)

Installation view (‘The Field’, ‘The Seedlings Dance’, ‘Bootflower’)

Installation view (‘The Field’, ‘Cyclepups’, ‘The Struggle’, ‘Progenitor’, ‘Offspring’, ‘Bootflower’)

Installation view (‘Black Velvet’, ‘Highlander’, ‘Hunter’, ‘The Struggle’, ‘Progenitor’, ‘Offspring’, ‘Embryo’, ‘Nectar’, ‘The Comforter’)

Installation view (‘Highlander’, ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Hunter’, ‘The Struggle’, ‘Prone’, ‘Progenitor’, ‘Offspring’)

Installation view (‘Prone’, ‘Progenitor’, ‘Offspring’, ‘The Young Family’, ‘Embryo’)

The Young Family (‘The Young Family’)

Installation view (‘Prone’, ‘The Breathing Room’, ‘The Young Family’)

Detail of The Young Family (‘THe Young Family’)

Installation view (‘The Long Awaited’, ‘Surrogate’, ‘The Grotto’)

Detail of The Long Awaited (‘The Long Awaited’)

Installation view (‘Eagle Egg Man (The Philosopher)’, ‘Eagle Egg Man (The Astronomer)’, ‘Eagle Egg Man (The Optimist)’)

Installation view (‘The Long Awaited’, ‘Surrogate’, ‘The Grotto’, ‘Eagle Egg Man (The Astronomer, The Optimist, The Philosopher)’)

Installation view (‘Teenage Metamorphosis’, ‘Kindred’, ‘Eagle Egg Men’)

Kindred (‘Kindred’)

Detail of Kindred (‘Kindred’)

Installation view (‘Teenage Metamorphosis’)

Installation view (‘The Couple’, ‘Teenage Metamorphosis’)

The Couple (‘The Couple’)

A realistic, yet entirely unfamiliar, centaur-like creature with a bare muscular upper body, a furry back and yard-long sharp claws for legs and arms has climbed into bed with a little girl. Initially terrifying, the scenario rather paradoxically turns out to be infused by wonder and magic: the looks and smiles exchanged between the creature and child express mutual joy, tenderness and devotion. There seems to be a very special connection between the two. Where does this fabulous beast come from? How did the creature and human child meet? And in what kind of world do these two friends live?

Exploring the future

Australian artist Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965) is a storyteller first and foremost. Piccinini is internationally acclaimed for her spectacular, immersive installations whose narratives are set in a realm where science fiction, environmentalism and feminism intersect. With Piccinini we explore a fascinating and alien future world full of new, bizarre denizens we have never known before. We meet lifelike sculptures that depict imaginary and monstrous fabulous creatures, mutated chimeras and robots entering into a range of different interactions and relationships. The beings are biologically or digitally modified, given life through new technological possibilities. Piccinini’s universe narrates themes such as future cross-pollination, communities and kinship between species.

At the heart of Piccinini’s practice we find feminist themes such as care, empathy, reproduction and creation in biological borderlands. With her sensuous and complex works, Piccinini involves us in questions of how we perceive ourselves, live and form relationships in an age where the natural and the artificial mutate and connect in new ways. Her works are about fundamental existential issues: about being and belonging. Through a challenging aesthetic that strikes a balance between the disturbing, the alien and the sensitive, Piccinini draws us into a world of unexpected, affectionate and loving inter-species relationships; a world of care and co-existence that challenges those ingrained modes of thought that see man, nature and technology as separate categories. A world where what seems unknown and repulsive at first might turn out to be much less alien than you thought.

The Posthumanistic Agenda

Piccinini’s artistic universe is set against the backdrop of current questions about environmental issues and high-tech developments. As a result, her wildly imaginative narratives about new life forms and communities have resonated with thinkers belonging to the academic movement known as ‘posthumanism’, which has emerged across the humanities over the last two decades.1 Posthumanism strives to create narratives and produce knowledge about ‘more-than-human’ worlds. This involves a break away from (parts of) the Western legacy of humanist thought which places man at the centre of history writing. Posthumanism rethinks humanity’s place in nature and technology, critiquing the dominant Western outlook on humanity, which has – ever since the Enlightenment – defined the thinking, speaking individual as being independent from and raised above nature. 2 In the pursuit of progress and profit, the sharp distinction between man and nature3 has allowed for the systematic exploitation of natural resources ever since the nineteenth century through to the present day, where we find ourselves in the midst of the ‘the sixth mass extinction’ of animal and plant species. Responding to this, geologists have named our time ‘the Anthropocene Epoch’4 – ‘the time of man’, a geological term indicating that humanity has become a destructive ‘force of nature’ that directly affects the climate and planet.

Taking the form of a critique against ‘anthropocentric’ history writing, posthumanism 5 wants to direct attention to the other inhabitants of our planet: (pet) animals, farm animals, bees, (potted) plants, water, coral reefs, microbes, algae and so on – lifeforms with whom human history is closely entwined. Engaging in a close dialogue with biology and ethology, posthumanists think of ‘non-human’ beings and materialities as living, vibrant and full of active forces. For example, American philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway, one of the leading thinkers on multispecies communities and kinships, challenges the very idea of human identity when she tells us that our bodies are home to millions of microbes, bacteria and fungi. 6 Chemicals and food additives also flow through our bodies, shaping who we are. The identity that each of us perceives as our ‘I’, our ‘self’, is actually made up of an assembly of organic and synthetic Others. And so Haraway declares that ‘we have never been human’.7

Posthumanist thinkers are interested in examining the narratives that may arise in the wake of the growing biological, philosophical and ethical realisations that man is not a sovereign agent in the world. Zooming in on the other, non-human inhabitants of our planet opens up new perspectives that mark a departure away from ideas of a divine overview, of the poet’s distanced and distancing gaze and the objective knowledge of natural science. Seeing the world through a posthumanistic lens creates a ‘shattered gaze’ in which everything is connected and entangled in the most complex of ways. There is not just one world but many worlds, made by mutually entangled networks of life entering into ever-changing, ever-mutable multispecies relations.8 Taking Haraway’s speculative question about ‘who “we” become when species meet’9 as our guiding light, we explore Piccinini’s future world in order to get to know a range of new lifeforms – and get to know ourselves anew.

A Cabinet of Bodies

Piccinini’s universe is full of hybrids, cyborgs, monsters and chimeras (a feared child has many names!) which might hail from a mythical fantasy world or from a futurist sci-fi universe peopled by genetically modified species. Her imagery also interweaves elements from science, religion and modern literary and art history. New technologies play crucial roles in Piccinini’s art, but the realm of emotions and ideas about the possible creatures and connections of the future make up her true aesthetic domain. She draws us into lifelike scenes through seductive imagery that employs hyper-realistic devices. However, she disrupts and defies our expectations by taking hyperrealism into an imaginary dream world full of bizarre creatures and unfamiliar bodies – of curiosities and monstrosities. The playful and the cute meet the weird, the repulsive and the horrifying. Here a little girl plays with an accumulation of lumpy stem cells while a teenager, a human-armadillo hybrid, reclines on a rug, reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis. A strange little creature, half boy and half sea lion, entertains us by doing acrobatics on the back of a Capricorn. The more bizarre embodiments include gazelle-like animals with large, synthetic plastic heads, oversized mechanical organs and mutated, fleshy bodies.

Piccinini explores the feelings prompted in us when we come across something unknown, something that at first glance appears repulsive – and the structures that underpin such reactions. She is particularly interested in the visual norms and identity markers associated with the body: what makes us see certain features as beautiful, familiar, accustomed – and others as alien, dangerous, aberrant or confusing? A complex field that involves discourses on beauty, mechanisms of exclusion and power structures 10 – all those things that separate me from you, them from us.

Piccinini creates a wealth of imaginings through the use of a wide spectrum of contrasting materials such as silicone, fibreglass, nylon, plastic and human hair, which are combined to form new surfaces, patterns and textures that mimic skin, body hair, wrinkles, fleshy protuberances, glistening metallic surfaces and oozing substances. The result is a lush and baroque barrage of the senses, full of fusions between the synthetic and the organic, the imaginary and the real, the grotesque and the beautiful. The morphed bodies conjure up associations to scientific cabinets of curiosities, but Piccinini’s art is infused by a fertile imagination and sensitivity that counteract what we would usually see as a scientific gaze. She takes us back to the realm of fables where animals and humans share traits and moral convictions. Moving among her installations is like inhabiting a child’s dream world or a surreal metaphor. In fact, the legacy of Surrealism is clearly evident, and Piccinini herself points to the French Surrealist Dora Maar’s (1907–97) experimental photographs of mythical animal figures and to British-Mexican Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s (1917–2011) dreamlike visions of imaginary beings as sources of inspiration.

The age of the Surrealists was a time of major upheaval. New theories emerged within the realm of science, the processes of industrialisation and efficiency ran rampant (alongside those of wars and crises); the rationaltook centre stage. The Surrealists distanced themselves from the overall trends of the time by cultivating the subconscious, the irrational and the enigmatic. Their overall objective was to set individuals free from the shackles of reason by positing the ‘hidden forces’ and poetry of the subconscious at the very centre of existence. Many female Surrealists were interested in women’s position in society, cultivating a sensuous mode of expression imbued with mythic significance where fragments and symbols of the female body, the female gender and aspects of childbirth merge with elements of nature.11

Piccinini’s physical, bodily universe is similarly charged with mythical, sensual power. She depicts a plethora of new (and new kinds) of beings and growths that open up our imaginations and emotions, challenging all kinds of normative ideas about the body in an age where technological innovation, progress and productivity characterise and dominate our world, our environment, our behaviour and our bodies.

The Historical Categories of the Body

The Italian posthumanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, who contributes a conversation with Piccinini to this catalogue, has charted how the body has been subjected to a systematic pathologizing through the ages – a historical diagnoses of what counts as ‘the correct body’ and ‘the wrong body’. The classical ideals concerning the proportions of the human body hail back to antiquity and were cultivated in, for example, Greek marble statues and their Roman successors. Those ideals were rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance, as is encapsulated by Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) mathematical model of the Vitruvian Man from around 1490. This universal model of a physical ideal, which also reflected the moral and rational capacities of humanity, has defined humanism’s ideal image of the body ever since – within biology, culture and politics alike. Historically, this ideal has been used to justify the systematic stigmatisation and elimination of all those sexualised, racialised and animalised ‘Others’ whose bodies have not conformed to these universal norms – such as ‘freaks’ paraded in the circus, the forcibly sterilised ‘mentally infirm’, and the freely exploited and slain slaves.12 Thus, Braidotti declares the body a social construct that has become the story about ‘human nature’.13

The Changing Body

Today, the body is subjected to a range of opposing forces: culturally, classical ideals and body standards continue to be maintained while new technologies create entirely new types of bodies. The beauty and health industry cultivate a (Western) body image that is preoccupied with youth (not to say immortality), finding expression in everything from plastic surgery to Botox. Digital environments, biotechnology and artificial intelligence mediate our health, our bodies, our social and intimate relations. We insert pacemakers and chip implants of data in our bodies, and we manipulate our DNA to reach a ‘super human’ stage. Haraway’s 1985 theory on the cyborg as a figure poised between the organic and the technological has long since entered everyday mainstream life. 14 The most recent gene editing tool, CRISPR, which eventually can be used to sample genes across bodies and species, is a particularly important biological game changer. Scientists are currently developing a range of different transbiological experiments which make it possible, among many other things, to cultivate human organs in pig’s bodies by inserting human stem cells into embryos at a very early stage. Within the realm of genetics, such beings – created by crossing different species – are known as ‘chimeras’; the mythical beast of ancient Greece has now become a trans-biological reality! Such blurring of the boundaries between different species has prompted new, fierce discussion within bioethics on the philosophical and existential consequences that innovation has for humanity – in every sense of the term. 15

Piccinini’s world is full of trans-genetic chimeras and robotic creatures living side by side, challenging the categorical distinctions between the human and the animal, the natural and the artificial. In The Comforter (2010), spectators meet a young girl with long black hair, wearing a pretty dress and red sandals. Depicted sitting on the ground, she is gazing with rapt attention at an indefinable, lumpy, naked creature that she cradles lovingly in her arms. This strange, fleshy creature has tentacles on its head and rudimentary features such as legs, arms and a mouth. Upon close inspection we are struck by the contrast between the delicately light, new-born skin of the creature and the thick, dark fur on the girl’s body. She, too, is an unknown species: a hybrid between a human being and some other primate. Both creatures seem alien, yet both sport a range of familiar, humanoid features which pave the way for questions about what we see as specifically human. What is our differentia specifica?Do our bodies, our skin or the clothes we wear define who we are? In our encounter with these two beings, we must ask ourselves, in the words of Piccinini, ‘ if it’s such a challenge to distinguish where one starts and the other ends, can we really continue to believe in the barriers that separate us16 But visual and biological similarities are not the only things that confront us in this work. The situation itself tells us that we have even more in common with these beings. The girl’s tender embrace of the small creature fills the scene with a sense of intimacy and warmth that transforms what might at first seem grotesque, repulsive and alienating into a narrative about familiar relations of affection and care.

The Monster Figure Reinterpreted

As a storyteller, Piccinini enters into a conversation with – and a revolt against – those dichotomies and stereotypes concerning good/evil, human/monster, repellent/beautiful that permeate the science-fiction literature and film of popular culture. In the work The Couple(2018), for example, Piccinini rewrites the sci-fi classic Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheusby the British writer Mary Shelley (1797–1851). Shelley’s 1818 novel tells the story of the young scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein, who creates a monster as a result of a range of scientific experiments. Due to its repulsive appearance, the monster is driven to lead an isolated, lonely and miserable life. At one point in the story the monster does make one friend, a blind man; but their friendship is discovered by the man’s family, and the monster is chased away. Eventually it commits violent and murderous acts in a state of abject desperation.

Piccinini wanted to rewrite this influential sci-fi story by giving the lonely monster the companion it wanted so passionately.17 The result is this intimate scene where two biogenetically modified beings lie in bed inside a caravan, cradling each other. The female being embraces and protects the masculine creature, which has more ‘monstrous’ features than she. He is the vulnerable one, she the protector. Is he in danger? Are they on the run? Or are we simply witnessing a perfectly ordinary scene from their everyday lives? Engaging Mary Shelley in conversation, Piccinini asks us: who is the real monster in the tale of Frankenstein? Can we accept responsibility for and love the new beings we create? Can we meet what may at first seem alien and frightening with openness, trust and love?

A recurring cathartic element of sci-fi tales – from Frankenstein to the cult movie 2001:A Space Odysseyfrom 1968 and the family classic E.T. from 1982 – concerns the realisation that the monstrous and alien is actually a reflection of (the alien and the repulsive in) ourselves. Several of Piccinini’s works address our ambivalent relationship with technological innovation, robots and artificial intelligence. The Struggle (2017) depicts two living machine animals with metallic surfaces. They gleam brightly, like factory-fresh design products. 18 A leonine scooter is taking down a defenceless Vespa with features resembling those of an innocent deer. The work is based on the British Romantic landscape painter George Stubbs’s (1724–1806) series of lions and horses. Piccinini is interested in the huge changes that took place in Stubbs’s own time, where the breeding and domestication of horses became systematised and modern agriculture established. This was also a time when animal portraits became a popular genre within art. US professor of literary history Donna Landry, whose field of research include the (art) history of the horse, has described the kind of distancing away from untamed nature, from the animalistic and ‘the uncivilised’, that these paintings were supposed to depict.19 Stubbs’s works demonstrate a scientific interest in anatomical traits as well as an exotification of the ‘wild’ qualities of the foreign places encountered through the European powers’ new territorial discoveries and conquests. 20 In The Struggle, robots and machines have become wild, violent animals of the kind we have long observed and desired at a distance. The work reflects a general fear of robots coming to life to such an extent that they evade human control. But since robots are coded in accordance with human intelligence and made in our image, whose desire, whose wildness is truly reflected in this work? Who is the real predator in times of environmental change and species extinction? The work poses questions about the responsibility that comes with creating, using and living with technological inventions that we might call our offspring. 21


Intimacies, Intricacies and Kinships

Piccinini’s world is full of ‘naturecultures’ and ‘technocultures’, terms used by Donna Haraway to describe our contemporary landscapes in which nature, culture and technology merge. We are introduced to new ecosystems poised between the organic and the synthetic, involving constant tensions between the fecund and the infertile, the individual and the collective. In the total installation The Field,viewers step into a dark wood consisting of 3,000 lush white monotropa unifloraplants that stand out brightly in the darkness. Known as the ‘ghost plant’ due to its transparent appearance, this particular plant does not derive energy from sunlight, but via a vast underground system of mycelium. The plant is rhizomatic; its existence depends on a collective of chain connections. 22 It is defined as parasitic because it takes nourishment via another organism – but perhaps it simply teaches us something about other forms of coexistence? In Piccinini’s version the plant becomes an unknown, mutated, abundant and fleshy growth that combines phallic and ovary-like forms. Piccinini has fused the plant’s body with the prehistoric limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf, a Palaeolithic figure that presumably depicts a fertility goddess. Is this a new, rapidly growing reproductive species? Or are we – as proposed by American ethnographer and scholar of posthumanistic studies, Eben Kirksey, who contributes the text ‘Emergent Forms of Life’ to this catalogue – looking at ‘ripe transgenetic growths sown in order to supply organs for transplantation into humans?’ 23 Should we envision these organs becoming part of our bodies?

The forest is peopled by a range of alien lifeforms whose bodies seem strange to us in every way. The beings called Bunker (2015), Atlas(2012) and the peculiar pollen creature in the film Seedling Dance (2018) are simultaneously fleshly, organic and technological and cannot be arranged into binary categories. They are queer, interspecies beings, contrasts to the (hetero)normative body, reminiscent of tentacular organisms with no central nervous system or brain, sensing and recording the world with every cell of their body – such as the brittle star, a close relative of the starfish whose bodily morphology forms one big sensory apparatus. 24 These beings have a certain kinship with the lifeforms appearing in Afro-American sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler’s (1947–2006) feminist universe in her Xenogenesis trilogy from 1987–89. In Butler’s speculative imaginings, inter-species lifeforms live in non-hierarchical, collective organisations that form a contrast to patriarchal, capitalist, individualist and gender-normative systems.[25]

Piccinini’s works are associated with new transbiological lifeforms and with pressing issues concerning collapsing ecosystems and the looming extinction of species. We live in an era of ‘double death’ – a concept phrased by the American anthropologist and posthumanist philosopher Deborah Bird Rose to describe the many eradications of species and landscapes that can never blossom again. 26 Piccinini’s Kindred(2018) depicts a naked maternal figure, half orangutan and half human, with a large head, large gentle eyes and orange hair. She carries her offspring: two different hybrids. We witness a story of disappearance and emergence: while the orangutan is on the brink of extinction, new species arise through new biotechnologies. Piccinini shows us a proud, strong and vulnerable maternal figure who looks us straight in the eye and keeps us transfixed with her gaze – she protects her children, holding them close, even if they resemble us more closely than her. Piccinini invites us to think about this point: ‘The idea that we, as humans, are uniquely and fundamentally different from other animals is a cornerstone of how humans have traditionally seen themselves. It is this “specialness” that allows us to exploit the environment and others around us. However, both genetic analysis and observation is showing how small the difference is. We see common DNA everywhere, and common behaviours in many other animals, especially primates. Like us, orangutan mothers keep their children close and educate them for many years. In this work, we see three unique individuals each set at a different point on a continuum of greater or less “animal-ness”. However, the point is not their difference, but their connection. ’ 27 28 And particularly what we as viewers have in common with these beings. On this note, let us return to Haraway’s description of our bodies as containers and vehicles for bacteria. Haraway accentuates the potential in the alienating effect that arises in the recognition of the fact that I am ‘other’ than (just) myself. For example, she too reminds us that about 90% of our DNA is ‘non-human material’ and that we share about 98% of our DNA with other primates. 29 These insights destabilise the imagined boundaries between myself and ‘the other’. A similar identity-disrupting experience takes place in our sense of kinship and connection with the beings shown in Kindred.

In another work, Still Life with Stem Cells(2002), the curiosity and open-mindedness of a child entices us into a close, intimate relationship with an unknown alien body. The work strikes at our fear of mutation, viruses, parasites and epidemics. A small girl sits surrounded by an assembly of foetus-like lumps scattered across the floor. Our associations run towards escaped or discarded stem cells from a laboratory experiment (perhaps one that’s gone wrong?). Do these creatures carry a dangerous virus? Are they contagious? Do they have independent will or objectives? The young girl takes no heed of such visual connotations as she interacts with her new, cute playmates.30 As is so often the case with Piccinini, the imagination, playfulness, emotional warmth and curiosity of a child transforms an encounter with the seemingly alien and repulsive into something affectionate and wondrous.

Births and Deaths

Piccinini’s universe is a fertile one; her installations teem with births, eggs, pollen, cocoons, sperm cells, stem cells, and incubating and breastfeeding bodies that cut across the realms of the natural, the artificial and the mechanical. The mother figure is a recurring figure in Piccinini’s art, but she also shows us other kinds of parenthood: children cast as caregivers, or the philosophising eagle creatures in The Eagle Men (2018), with prominent noses and nest-shaped, fleshy bodies. Simultaneously intellectual, masculine and maternal, the three eagle creatures serve to remind us of the countless queer examples in nature where the male of the species takes on the part of incubator or main caregiver – for example, among penguins, marmosets or seahorses, where the male carries the eggs. Piccinini presents us with potential narratives that challenge normative ideas about care, gender roles and family set-ups across different species.

Darker, more fateful narratives about creation, life and death can also be found among Piccinini’s accounts of reproduction and motherhood in multispecies worlds. The biomedical field is an arena of power that encompasses the right to decide who and what kinds of bodies should be reproduced and which should be rejected – so-called necropolitics. 31 Fertility clinics are awash with tales of dreams, hope, power, money, life and death. Biotechnologies facilitate new kinds of sexuality, gender and queer families. At the same time, designer babies bring about a constant systematisation of the body through the correction and rejection of genetic ‘imperfections’. Piccinini also reminds us that the field of biopharmaceuticals is full of non-human ‘workers’ in the laboratories. 32 She involves us in bio-ethical issues as she presents us with laboratory rodents with their tiny new-born young, and a surrogate mother figure hatching her offspring with her fleshy back. Has this being emerged through natural selection, or is it a cultivated transbiological lifeform living in a laboratory habitat? What will the surrogate mothers and family set-ups of the future look like? Which new inter-species family entanglements will we enter into? Who will we call ‘family’ in the future? 33

The scene depicted in The Young Family(2002) is as topical as ever in light of the most recent CRISPR organ experiments. 34 In this work, Piccinini depicts yet another transgenetic mother figure, half pig and half human, suckling a litter of puppy-like offspring. The hybrid family lies isolated on a sterile plastic bed, and the mother looks exhausted and worried. Can we even imagine the lives led by laboratory animals? Will her new-born young have their organs harvested for transplants? How long will they be allowed to live? The work confronts us with difficult ethical questions about our interaction with the other lifeforms on this globe and the new technological options available to us. Can we ethically defend the cultivation of new lifeforms as mere resources if doing so can save human lives – perhaps that of a child in need of immediate treatment? Is one life worth more than another?

The Trouble and Potential of Care

Piccinini’s world opens up narratives about potential communities and kinships between species, full of questions about how to enter into responsible35 and caring relationships with each other and with the planet we all share. Piccinini offers up a visually and emotionally challenging and complex universe which requires us – in Haraway’s words – to stay with the troubleof living and dying in a multispecies world. 36 In keeping with this, the Spanish literary scholar and posthumanist thinker María Puig de la Bellacasa describes how care should not be regarded as a simple, straightforward ‘feel good’ state. 37 The sociology of care belongs to a hitherto under-prioritised field that is rife with conflict; a field which charts socioeconomic inequality, oppression and the exploitation of marginalised and vulnerable groups.38 (Re)writing history through care cannot be done at a distance, points out Puig de la Bellacasa. It requires commitment, involvement and devotion. Hence, the thinking associated with care carries critical and transformative potential for rethinking and destabilising the individualistic ideologies and structures – such as utility, growth and profit – which characterise the neoliberal order of our contemporary times. 39

Through seductive and sensuous aesthetics, Piccinini takes us close to the challenging, the alien and the strange. She shows us that if we dedicate a little time to her creatures, what initially seems dangerous and disturbing can transform into wondrous relationships of intimacy, care and love. For Haraway the path towards shaping a more caring multispecies future also involves ‘embracing unexpected attachments that may seem revulsive’. 40 This magical transformation constitutes the main message and potential of Piccinini’s art. Her planetary universe addresses and encompasses the unknown – partly the unknown that we face in the naturecultures and technocultures of the future, but also those unknown entities with which we already live in entangled connections that cut across people and species: the unknown factors that are part of our world – and ourselves. For no beings, no creatures, should or can live alone.


1. Posthumanism overlaps and is an offshoot of a range of other current theories: speculative realism (Dan Graham), animal studies (Vinciane Despret, Elisabeth Grosz), new materialism (Jane Bennett, Karen Barad) and others. The posthumanistic field exists of branches and internal disagreements; for an overview see: Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
2. The rational legacy of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ in particular has shaped Western humanist exceptionalism, which has established a categorical distinction between rational Man and Nature. See, for example, Bruno Latour, ‘Vi har aldrig været moderne. Et essay om symmetrisk antropologi’, trans. Carsten Sestoft (Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2006).
3. The list of such binaries is endless: mind/body, self/other, man/nature, man/animal, culture/nature, organism/machine, public/private, man/woman, white/black, civilised/primitive, etc.
4. The concept of the Anthropocene was proposed in 2002 by Nobel Laureate (Chemistry) Paul Crutzen and officially sanctioned by the International Geological Congress in September 2016. The start of the new epoch is set around the year 1950, replacing the Holocene, which encompasses the last 12,000 years of stable climate conditions since the last Ice Age. See: Damian Carrington, ‘Vi er trådt ind i en ny geologisk epoke: Antropocæntiden’, Udland, Information (5 September 2018).
5. The concept has met with widespread criticism within posthumanist circles because it yet again places humankind at the centre of history writing where the inherent apocalyptic scenario is exclusively concerned with the end of the human race. In addition to this, the concept assigns blame for the climate changes to the whole of humanity – not specifically to the industrialised Western countries that hold the actual responsibility and whose profits rest on colonialization and exploitation. Based on the critical question ‘Who is included in and excluded from this all-encompassing “we” in the history of anthropos?’, a number of theorists are proposing other, more nuanced terms to describe our epoch: Capitalocene (Andreas Malm, Jason Moore), the Anthropos-not-seen (Marisol de la Cadena), Plantationocene (Anna L. Tsing & Nils Bubandt), Chthulucene (Haraway) and Planthropocene (Natacha Meyrs).
6. Donna J. Haraway, ‘When Species Meet – Introductions’, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 4.
7. Donna Haraway argues for the use of ‘humusities’ instead of humanities and ‘humus’ instead of human or posthuman(ism), to play with the idea of all of us being part of a vast, muddy compost heap. Donna J. Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’, e-flux journal 75 (September 2016).
8. Cf. Karen Barad’s concept of ‘diffraction’: Karen Barad ‘Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart’, Parallax 3, vol. 20, Diffracted Worlds – Diffractive Readings: Onto-Epistemologies and the Critical Humanities (2014). Also cf. Donna Haraway’s relational ontology in: ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988), pp. 575–599.
9. Donna J. Haraway, ‘When Species Meet – Introductions’, in: When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
10. For more on Piccinini’s approach to the Western pathologising of skin in relation to contemporary consumer culture, see: Juliana Engberg, Retrospectology – The World According to Patricia Piccinini, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Dec./Mar. 2002.
11. For more about the women writers and artists of Surrealism and their position within the Surrealistic movement, see: Gwen Raaberg, ‘The Problematics of Women and Surrealism’, and Rudolf Kuenzli, ‘Surrealism and Mysogony’, Surrealism and Women (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Edition, 1991).
12. Regarding ‘animalisation’ as ‘racialisation’, see: Neel Ahuja, ‘Postcolonial Critique in a Multispecies World, Representing the Modern Animal in Culture’, ed. Jeanne Dubino, Ziba Rashidian and Andrew Smyth (Palgrave Macmillan (US), 2014), pp. 223–251.
13. Rosi Braidotti, Patricia Piccinini. CURIOUS AFFECTION, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland, 2018. Rosi Braidotti, ‘Post-Humanism – Life Beyond the Self’, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), pp. 13–54.
14. Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (Free Association, 1991), p. 149–182.
15. Lone Frank, ‘Mens vi venter på kammerat Napoleon’, Weekendavisen, Ideer (19 August 2016), p. 5.
16. Patricia Piccinini quoted in: Peter Mckay, ‘Patricia Piccinini: CURIOUS AFFECTION’, CURIOUS AFFECTION, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland, 2018, p. 18.
17. Cf. Piccinini herself in: ‘Conversation between Patricia Piccinini and Eben Kirksey’, Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 3 September 2018.
18. Patricia Piccinini’s own words on the artist’s website:
19. Donna Landry, ‘The Noble Brute: Contradictions in Equine Ideology, East and West’ and Neel Ahuja, ‘Postcolonial Critique in a Multispecies World’, in Representing the Modern Animal in Culture, ed. Jeanne Dubino, Ziba Rashidian and Andrew Smyth, Palgrave Macmillan, USA, 2014, pp. 23–25.
20. Regarding the relationship between consumer culture and the fetishization of ‘the new’ and a reading of ‘the paradisiacal’ in relation to new land and colonialism in Piccinini, see: Juliana Engberg, retrospectology: the world according to patricia piccinini, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2002.
21. About ecological politics, the responsibility of being a master and love for monsters, see Bruno Latour, ‘Love Your Monsters – Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children’, The Breakthrough (Winter 2012).
22. Cf. Gilles Deleuze; Felix Guattari, ‘Introduktion’, Tusind Plateauer, trans. Niels Lyngsø, Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademis Billedskunstskoler, 2005.
23. Eben Kirksey, ‘Curious Affection’, Somatosphere – Science, Medicine, and Anthropology, 10 April 2018.
24. For more on diffraction, symbiogenesis and sympoiesis, see: Karen Barad, ‘Invertebrate Visions: Diffractions of the Brittlestar’, The Multispecies Salon (Duke University Press, 2014); Lynn Margulis, ‘Symbiosis Everywhere’, Symbiotic Planet (A New Look at Evolution), (Basic Books, 1999); Donna Haraway, ‘Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble’, STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE Making Kin in the Chtuhulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
25. See Aimee Bahng, ‘Plasmodial Improprieties: Octavia E. Butler, Slime Molds, and Imagining a Femi-Queer Commons’, Queer Feminist Science Studies A Reader (Seattle: University of Wash-ington Press, 2017).
26. See: Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Footprints’, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (National Library of Australia, 2004), pp. 165–178. For more stories about the sixth mass extinction, also see: Extinction Studies. Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, ed. Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew (New York: Colombia University Press, 2017). For reading on Piccinini’s practice in the context of Australia’s eco-disasters, see Donna Haraway’s text ‘Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture’s Generations: Taking Care of Unexpected Country’, The Multispecies Salon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). Here, Haraway explores Piccinini’s practice in the light of the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s ethnographic studies of indigenous cultures in Australia in Reports from a Wild Country from 2004.
27. Patricia Piccinini in: Nathan Scolaro, ‘Patricia Piccinini Makes Tender Art’, Dumbo Feather 56, Embracing the Wild, Third Quarter, Australia (2018), p. 92.
28. In ‘UNBECOMING HUMAN’, media theorist Kate Mondloch critiques the general art theory reception of Piccini’s universe: a reception which, according to Mondloch, looks toward ‘the recognisable’ and familiar in the encounter with Piccinini’s species. Importantly, Mondloch points to the anthropomorphising aspects of such simplified readings where everything is reflected in the human. To Mondloch’s mind, the critical potential in Piccinini resides in alienation, in the uncanny element. As I see it, Mondloch does, however, end up reiterating the binary opposites she criticises. The kinships and affinities in Piccinini’s works establish a new kind of connectedness that consists in the very destabilising of humanist thinking about ‘the human’. See Kate Mondloch, ‘Unbecoming Human, Patricia Piccinini’s Bioart and Postanthropocentric Posthumanism’, A CAPSULE AESTHETIC Feminist Materialism in New Media Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
29. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 12.
30. For more on the combination of ‘the monstrous cute’ in Piccinini’s art, see: Anitra Goriss-Hunter, ‘Slippery mutants perform and wink at maternal insurrections: Patricia Piccinini’s monstrous cute’, Continuum Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 4, vol. 18 (2004).
31. See Paul B. Preciado, ‘BAROQUE TECHNOPATRIARCHY: REPRODUCTION’, ARTFORUM 56, No. 5 (January 2018).
32. The posthumanist philosopher and theorist on animal behaviour Vinciane Despret’s ideas on the relationship between man and animal and on animals as workers have highly interesting and wide-ranging scientific, philosophical, social and legal implications. See: Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
33. Haraway’s controversial (and criticised) thinking on human overpopulation and multispecies’ reproductive justice under the slogan ‘Make kin – not babies’ is relevant here. See: Donna Haraway, ‘Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice’, in: Making Kin Not Population, ed. Adele Clarke and Donna Haraway (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018).
34. The work comes from Piccinini’s seminal exhibition WE ARE FAMILY presented at the Australian pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Here, Piccinini addressed new family forms in a trans-biological landscape. For more on this, see the exhibition catalogue WE ARE FAMILY, National Library of Australia, 2006.
35. Cf. Karen Barad’s concept of ‘response-ability’, which encompasses the ability to allow scope for mutual response. See: ‘Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers’, interview with Karen Barad, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, ‘Meeting Utrecht Halfway’ – 7th European Feminist Research Conference, the Graduate Gender Programme of Utrecht University, 6 June 2009.
36. Donna Haraway, STAYING WITH THE TROUBLE, pp. 1–3.
37. María Puig de Bellacasa, Matters of Care – Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), p. 12.
38. For more on the sociology of care, see Puig de Bellacasa, ‘Introduction’, Matters of Care – Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, pp. 1–24.
39. Cf. Donna Haraways’s term ‘multispecies’, translated into the Danish term flerartet in: Donna Haraway, At lege snorefigurer med ledsagende arter: At blive i besværet, trans. Ida Bencke (Copenhagen: Laboratoriet for Æstetik og Økologi, Copenhagen, 2017).
40. Quoted via María Puig de Bellacasa, Matters of Care – Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, p. 89.