Thursday, July 16, 2009

Patricia Piccinini Grabs Des Moines

January 2007
Young Mother Up from Down Under
Patricia Piccinini grabs your attention with six-inch claws. And because her best-known art solicits responses from those parts of the human brain shared with reptiles, some people try to dismiss it.
The cover shot on the Des Moines Art Center’s announcement of Piccinini’s exhibition “Hug,” for example, drew complaints that it exploited shock value as a gimmick. It didn’t. Gimmicks shock for the sole purpose of shocking. Piccinini’s shocking creatures are visionary solutions to frightening real world problems.

Within the debates about the morality of cloning, genetics and stem cell manipulation, Piccinini is an extreme moderate. That makes her as odd within the worlds of art and politics as any of her creations are within nature. She articulates both sides of the debates with dramatic, but even restraint.
“We can genetically engineer a certain kind of protein in milk to feed all the children in Africa, which would be a wonderful thing. Or we might patent a new form of grain and then sell it at such a high price that it will be impossible for African farmers to remain, or ever again become, self-sufficient. That would be terrible,” she posed.

After 15 years of artful mediations about such human interventions in nature, the Australian artist now accepts a quantum range of possibilities.

“I am interested in outcomes, particularly in failures — in doing the wrong thing for the right reason,” she says. “When we intervene in nature, it is always with good intentions, but thinking we are in control is always the problem. We can’t ever control the consequences of the intervention. In Australia, we imported foxes and rabbits in order to look like England. They turned instead into the biggest pests on the continent. I try to create narratives, to tell stories that demonstrate our inability to control outcomes. Maybe this is part of evolution? Maybe this is how it goes from here?”
In “Hug,” one of those stories concerns a nearly extinct bird beloved in Australia — the HeHo, or golden helmeted honeyeater. They’re dependent upon gum trees and possums to tap their food. The controversial photo on the Art Center invitations depicted a Piccinini sculpture of a genetically engineered “Bodyguard” for the HeHo — fierce enough to frighten predators and with jaws to tap gum trees. Ferocious and repulsive at first sight, the clone becomes maternal and sympathetic on closer inspection — “more like us, than unlike us” in the artist’s words.
“My Bodyguards aren’t necessarily a real solution,” she says. “Maybe the real solution is waving goodbye to many endangered species. That’s nature, too. My work hangs on that structure.”
Another story in “Hug” concerns an issue more down to the Iowa earth. “The Young Family” is based on a chimera with dominant pig genes.

“I am interested in animal organs that can be transplanted in humans and since pig organs are the least likely to be rejected, I spent some time with pigs,” she says. “I wanted to be around a sow giving birth and it was an experience I will never forget. She delivered 13 piglets, but she sat on six of them. That’s nature.

“I’m a city girl like most people in Australia and most people in the world for that matter. So it was a bit of a revelation to see that she’s full of human qualities. The disturbing thing for us is that that reflects us in a lowly point of view. Then we have to think about how we treat pigs and other animals. They are more like us than unlike us,” she reiterated.

As if to dramatize that, Piccinini explained that “The Young Family” is partly autobiographical.

“This work is about a mother thinking about her children and their future. My mother was sick from the time I was 13 until she died many years later. I would have done anything to help her. So, I don’t find it problematic to consider organs transplanted from creatures that aren’t genetically all human. Confronting a pig mother and her own dilemma of destiny is just as emotional for me.

“I am pregnant now. My sister is depressed and her mother was depressed when pregnant with her — depression prevents the transmission of seratonin to the fetus. We never know to what extent we interfere with the outcomes of others. But when we do know, it evokes new questions about how to behave. It’s all about education. Letting people know so they can make good choices about how to behave. Education is part of nurturing and nurturing is a big, big part of my work,” she says.

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