Between the Shadow and the Soul
Originally published: Between the Shadow and the Soul, exhibition catalogue, Helsinki Taidehalli, 2020
by Anna Mustonen (2020)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
Pablo Neruda, Love Sonnet XVII, 1959
Soul is the spiritual or immaterial part of a human or an animal, regarded as something that transcends the bodily, time and place. Unlike the body, the soul is immortal - yet it also stands for emotional or intellectual energy, particularly in relation to a work of art. A shadow, in contrast, is a dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface. Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures inhabit this same space in-between: light and dark, love and loss; and that despite belonging in this material world, can only truly be experienced in spirit.
Piccinini creates anthropomorphic sculptures that explore the relationship between the artificial and the natural, humans and their environment, the viewer and the artwork. She uses an array of materials including silicone, leather, and human hair, and works in a variety of media - painting, video, sound, installation, digital printing - to create en-captivating worlds in which science and mythology, the imaginary and the real, human, machine and nature become intertwined.
At the heart of Piccinini’s practice are themes of fecundity - the potential of life - empathy, connection and wonder. The creatures, or chimeras, Piccinini creates are not conventionally beautiful - far from it - yet have an endearing, ethereal quality about them that evokes a desire to care and nurture.
Between The Shadow and The Soul consists of environments created specifically for Helsinki Taidehalli. This includes an immersive installation Alone With The Gods, a new two-channel video and a group of four major sculptures that together present the lifecycle of birth, childhood, adulthood and old age. A premiere of a large-scale sculpture Sapling depicting an adult man carrying a child-sized hybrid creature on his shoulders, introduces themes of hybridity, care and the environment that run through the exhibition .
I woke up to silence. The deep silence that comes with being alone. She was gone. I suppose I could follow her but somehow I can’t. I do wonder what she will make of the outside. I mean, I know she’ll be fine, but what will she do with all that stuff? Her whole life has been making so much out of so little - maximising the minimum - but what happens when she comes up against all that excess. Something for sure. I picture an explosion, an unstoppable frothing discharge rumbling beneath the face of the world. I wish I could see it. But I’m here and I am the last.
From ’Alone With The Gods’
Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey’s collaborative installation Alone With The Gods explores ideas of secret societies, parallel worlds, evolution and mutation. Originally exhibited at MCA Australia, the installation is designed to be an ’immersive narrative space’ based on a story Piccinini and Hennessey wrote about a fictional isolationist cult.
Narrated seemingly by the last remaining member of the sect through an old TV set, the installation appears as an architectural and material description of a psychic space, rather than an external construction. Reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’ enclosed installation works she referred to as Cells - intensely psychological microcosms in which a collection of objects have been arranged to evoke an atmosphere of emotional resonance - Piccinini uses sculptural forms, found objects and personal items each carrying an emotional charge. Unlike Bourgeois’ who stated that the Cells represent ’different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual …’ Piccinini’s universe is more about hope and potential rather than isolation and fear, with references to mythology and genetic engineering .
Sphinx as we traditionally know it, is a large ancient statue of a creature with a human head and a lion’s body that stands near the pyramids in Egypt. In mythology, sphinxes gave people puzzles to solve - similarly we refer to a person who is mysterious or puzzling as a sphinx. Poignantly Piccinini’s Sphinx (2012) is nothing short of puzzling; sitting on top of a heavy black bronze block, the human head has been replaced by a sunken wound-like area suggestive of female genitalia. Rather than a guardian of a temple, this creature is undoubtedly feminine and most likely fecund - the silicone body in its abundant fleshiness is a far cry from the rigid statue we would associate with a Sphinx, despite the clear formal references to the ancient sculpture. The fleshy wound that has replaced the face appears as a site for reproduction, boldly placed on its pedestal for everyone to see .
Nectar (2012) presents itself as a similar protean organism - a small fleshy lump of a creature - yet as opposed to Sphinx the fecundity has been rendered literal as gooey honey-like substance pouring out from one of the holes on top of it. Sitting on top of a fridge - an object designed to contain - the amorphous being is refusing to do just that, allowing the sweet nectar to pour on top of the surface creating almost an identical accumulation to its fleshy origin. For Piccinini, honey is a particularly interesting substance - not only for being produced through and from the body, but also because when we consume it, we are the third creature to have digested it as it passes through two bees before it reaches us - creating an endless symbiotic chain.
The corporeal, amorphous and oozing liquid forms recur in rest of the works seen in Alone With The Gods. Evocative of Bourgeois’ bulbous part objects, that serve as stand-ins for the actual object of desire or hatred, Piccinini’s near abstract representations of fleshy lumps and bumps, cavities, and human hair render it impossible to say where the object ends and our imagination begins. It is almost as if the material objects we encounter serve themselves as vehicles to internal worlds - reflecting back to us through the mirrored surfaces on the set - bringing to fore questions about space and memory, the body and architecture, the conscious and the unconscious .
Patricia Piccinini has always been pre-occupied by the concept of aging - her fascination comes to life in a group of four major sculptures that together present the four stages of life in the human life cycle; Eulogy, Coup, Big Mother and The Sanctuary.
Big Mother (2005), a life-size depiction of long haired chimera carrying a human infant, was inspired by the story of a baboon whose baby died while she was still nursing who then abducted a human child to substitute the lost child. When baboons loose lose their small babies they, like humans, grieve, and continue to carry the dead infant around with them until it disintegrates in their arms. This is almost a metaphor to human grief after losing a child - we carry the weight of the loss with us until, bit by bit, it lessens, yet leaves a lasting trace in our memory. The bodies of baboon mothers, like those of humans, still continue to produce nourishment to feed the life that is no longer there, making that grief even more poignant.
Big Mother shows us how close we are to different species in our primal responses - the love for a child knows no boundaries. It also points out how similar our physiology is with the human baby suckling at the baboon’s breast; we all feed our small in the same way, and in fact it wasn’t that long ago it was common place for wet nurses to feed other women’s offspring. The blue bags placed on the floor at Big Mother’s feet serve almost as metaphorical baggage that has been placed aside to look after the new life. Women are wired to be able to do both - emotionally and physically offer care and sustenance, our bodies a conduit - not only to our own children but those of others .
Big Mother demonstrates how Piccinini often approaches ethical questions, not by preaching but through emotion and empathy, by reminding us that we are, after all, nothing but animals ourselves. The story of Big Mother intrinsically connects with mythology, Piccinini’s storytelling explaining the complexities and ethical questions in the world that we live in. Her work simultaneously acts to question the attitudes we have towards the natural and animal world, but also expectations we have towards our own kind.
…where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep
Pablo Neruda, Love Sonnet XVII, 1959
The Sanctuary (2018) shows an elderly couple in an intimate embrace more often than not associated with youth - the elderly displaying love and intimacy has consistently remained a taboo in our society. The Sanctuary is based on the life of bonobo apes, a species closely related to both chimpanzees and humans that are endangered due to habitat loss. The bonobos are known for their high levels of sexual behavior - sex functions as expression of affection, but also in conflict appeasement, social status, excitement, and even stress reduction. The species’ pre-occupation with sex has been used to explain the lower levels of aggression compared to other apes. Notably, bonobos are also matriarchal meaning that the male position in hierarchy is mostly determined by their mother’s rank.
The relationship between the couple in The Sanctuary is undoubtedly sexual, but also comforting, love replacing any negativity and giving comfort in old age. The title implies a double meaning, sanctuary as a refuge, and safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger. In the case of bonobos this could also refer to extinction of the species, a sort of final embrace - something we also look for in our partners, more pronounced in older age as we approach our own demise. There is dignity and beauty in the embrace of these two beings that transcends both sexuality and age, in the face of death - of both the species and the individuals themselves. This palpable heartfelt tension between love and death - light and dark - is what is at the heart of Piccinini’s practice .
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
Pablo Neruda, Love Sonnet XVII, 1959
In the beginning of her career Patricia Piccinini spent time in medical and science museums making drawings of preserved specimens. The influence of these studies of pathologies and deviations of anatomy can be in seen in her work whether it is to do with humans, animals, machines - or most recently, the plant world.
The shoeform sculptures reflect Piccinini’s interest in fungi - often thought of as a vegetable, but in fact member of the group of so-called eukaryotic organisms that includes micro-organisms such as yeasts and molds, and mushrooms. Classified as a kingdom, fungi are separate from the other eukaryotic life kingdoms of plants and animals by not really being one or the other. This seems to fit perfectly with Piccinini’s work, in the which the characters almost without a fail always inhabit some kind of space in-between.
Shoeform (Sprout) (2019) is simultaneously an organ organ-like flower in its fleshiness and a sneaker at its roots. Living by its name it is sprouting yellow flower-like growths that are opening up like sunflowers towards the sun. The shoe base reminds us that the roots of this being are within humanity, yet and the glistening colours of yellow, orange and fleshy red give it a man-made feel. As with a lot of Piccinini’s work, it is also a very sexual creature; the flowers inviting in their openness, mimicking the appearance of reproductive organs in spite of their abstract shape. Although belonging to the ’real world’ in its objecthood, the Sprout inhabits a space somewhere between dream and reality. Piccinini herself describes these objects as ’tributes to the idea of hybridity, celebrations of life without any particular notion of what it should be’. The idea of rebirth, renewal and fecundity always at the fore of her practice, is clearly visible in this group of sculptures, as it is in a new a new film shown alongside the shoeforms that also speaks about rebirth and potential of life.
Shot on the South Coast of Australia which was widely devastated by the bushfires in summer 2019/2020, the film follows a young woman walking through a series of landscapes - burnt forests, industrialised urban grasslands, beautiful bushland. She carries in her arms a small, motionless creature with dark skin, that loosely resembles a marsupial. The place where the woman ends up is unremarkable, burnt out by the fire. As she squats down, she places the small creature on the ground, and after a while it starts stirring, finally pulling itself up and hopping away unaided - the woman’s gaze following its every move.
With We Walk Together, Piccinini is, in her way, capturing the aftermath of the bushfires yet not in an entirely apocalyptic way; there are green shoots sprouting from the ground and occasional healthy tree that you sometimes find even immediately after fires - like evergreen trees that stay green through their entire lifecycle and are considered symbols of immortality and fertility. Reflecting on the real life events, the film depicts a story that characteristically to Piccinini is one of sadness but also of hope, compassion and rebirth.
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
Edgar Allan Poe, Sonnet - To Science, 1829
Patricia Piccinini’s Sapling (2020) continues to explore themes of post-humanity, mythology, nature, fertility and concepts around child rearing and nurturing bodies. A majestic sculpture depicting a human father carrying a barely recognizable tree-like small child on his shoulders. The child is a chimera but with vegetal features - fleshy colored branches wrapped around the father’s neck, a small head resting on top of his as they travel together. Trees have been significant in many of the world’s mythologies, and have been given deep and sacred meanings throughout the ages. We see them as powerful symbols of growth, death and rebirth and the eternal - they by their nature offer endless potential for renewal and regrowth.
The intimacy between Piccinini’s characters - father and child - is heartfelt and overwhelming. The branches of the ’tree-child’ embrace the shoulders and the head, the most intimate parts of the body. Furthermore the sculpture reflects the change that has taken place in the recent years in the relationship that fathers have with their children. The roots - both literal and metaphorical - are not only attached to the mother but the father as well. By replacing the maternal body with that of a father Piccinini subverts the ideas of gender roles. Louise Bourgeois’ 1974 major installation Destruction of the Father spoke of a dominating father so depreciating of his children that they desire to eat him up. In contrast Piccinini’s father is nothing short of life-affirming, yet what the two artists artists have in common is what they say about theories about women, gender, and change. They both make work that despite of having a feminist point of view, is not specifically about women, but about the world at large .
Occupying its own space in the exhibition, Sapling reminds us of the responsibility we have as humans in the face of nature, with the child representing both the potential of life but also what is endangered in nature. The father carrying the child - simultaneously bodily and visceral, woody and natural - speaks about the change in society while reflecting upon our relationship with nature and the ways in which plants, like humans, can feel and have a memory. Just like a father has responsibility towards the young life he created, we also have responsibility towards nature. Piccinini subtly reminds us that what man has created, he can also destroy - if we cannot save the environment around us, how can we possibly save our own offspring ?
With Patricia Piccinini we are struck by the struggle to place her work within a specific framework - despite of the abundance of scientific, technological, formal and psychological references it defies analytical interpretation, calling for emotional response instead. The sculptures and psychic landscapes she creates are simultaneously rational and obsessive, masculine and feminine, real and imagined and embody a certain state of loneliness, that Melanie Klein suggests is experienced internally to an extent by everyone. Yet as opposed to Klein’s, in Piccinini’s world the coming together of the destructive and the loving, the good and bad, the positive always overwhelms the negative, the light shining over the darkness.
In Piccinini’s view we have a responsibility towards that which we create in that we have the responsibility to speak for them in the world. It is a similar response that her work demands from us as viewers - the desire to care, nurture, and to hold close these beings that despite their unfamiliar appearance somehow remind us of our surroundings, own children, our elderly parents, and of course - ourselves. Piccinini’s work transcends the current, instead touching upon the primal impulses and emotions within us be it repulsion, curiosity or fear. But most of all, it is about warmth, love and renewal. Piccinini sends a powerful message about hope, hope that as both individuals and communities we can come together to make a change, and that to care, to nurture, to create, is to make that change .
There is a feeling as we leave Piccinini’s peculiar universe behind, that we have lost a part ourselves yet gained something more valuable in the process. As Pablo Neruda writes ’the shadow is also the trace left in our souls, a mark of the encounter….without knowing how, or when, or from where.’