Piccinini + Hennessey: sincerely artificial

Daniel Palmer

Patricia Piccinini & Peter Hennessey

Patricia Piccinini & Peter Hennessey

Patricia Piccinini & Peter Hennessey

Seen fleetingly in a suite of photographs last year, SO2 is Patricia Piccinini’s latest synthetic creature. A highlight of the visual arts component of the Melbourne Federation Festival (“The Australia Projects”, May 9-27, curated by Juliana Engberg) Piccinini’s Superevolution featured SO2 both as a set of zoological images at RMIT and as an animatronic ‘live’ version at the Royal Melbourne Zoo which could be visited in its habitat. Uncannily platypus-like, the work was intended to represent “all that was primordial about the ancient continent of Terra Incognita.”

Meanwhile, LumpCD, co-authored by partner Peter Hennessey in their Melbourne Drome studio, represents the culmination of many years’ labour, incorporating a series of Piccinini’s ideas and images and translating them into an interactive form. LumpCD was included in the Posthuman Bodies component of the CyberCultures tour, and was recently exhibited at Centre for Contemporary Photography’s e-Media Gallery (March 16-April 12), and during May in the CCP’s regional Victorian CD-ROM program, Click.

Patricia Piccinini has been enjoying considerable international success lately. As well as group shows such as the Australian media art show Hybrid Life in Amsterdam in March, she was one of 4 Australian artists selected for the Kwangju Biennale in Korea last year, one of 2 for the Berlin Biennale in April, will hold a solo show in Lima in June and will be returning to Tokyo in July. Among other projects, Piccinini is currently working on Blast, an interactive environmental work for the new Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Melbourne’s
Federation Square.

How do you see Superevolution and LumpCD in the context of your overall art practice?

PP They both deal with the issues that have always inspired me—how we look at the definition of ‘life’, and how it’s affected by new medicine and technology. SO2 (synthetic organism 2) represents the dream of creating something really new, the ultimate creation—life itself. For the Federation Festival, Juliana Engberg suggested I work with a public institution and I chose the Zoo. It’s been challenging because zoos have a specific goal, which is not only to look after the animals but also to create encounters between humans and animals so that people will go away with a sense of connection. Zoos are totally self-conscious about the way they need to enclose their animals. So when I said to them that I wanted to put an artificial animal in the wombat enclosure, there were clear implications of a critique. Nevertheless, they agreed for me to go in there and create an animal that questions the nature of life—that draws attention to the idea that the zoo is totally artificial. What does the idea that we are now able to create a new life form say about the zoo’s main purpose, which is to preserve life? What does it say when the artificial and real animals of the zoo hold the same fascination for people?

I looked at lots of animals for SO2 and came up with drawings of a creature that kind of looks like a platypus, has the mouth of a stingray, but ultimately I feel is a relative of the naked mole rat. It’s now called the Siren Mole, or that’s its common name. Peter Stroud, curator of mammals, got me in touch with Paul Andrew, a taxonomist from Taronga, who gave SO2 a proper Latin name, Exallocephala parthenopa, a wonderfully romantic name from Parthenope, a siren said to have been cast up and drowned on the shores of Naples. Philip Miller from Puppetvision took my computer drawings and gave them a 3-dimensional form. The illusion of life is crucial for the work, otherwise the ideas wouldn’t be able to jump across, people wouldn’t engage with it. Now hopefully they’ll think: what’s this thing doing here, in fact, what’s this whole place doing here?

As well as indulging in the pleasure of pure creation, SO2 is about asking questions. Why would you create new life? Where would it belong? Could it affect other life forms that are indigenous to our environment? This whole project was inspired by a real life event—the creation of SO1 the world’s first synthetic life form, a micro-organism. This project is a fiction that, in this world of cloning and transgenic babies, is totally conceivable. It’s about cute, loving and adorable creatures that ask to be looked after and inspire feelings of nurturing. Ultimately this project could be a spark that might trigger off ideas in the public realm, amongst those who don’t see art very often.

And what about LumpCD? Can you tell me about your experiences producing and distributing it?

PH Patricia started making Lump works in 1994 for an exhibition at the Basement. Around 1997 we received a grant from the AFC to develop a CD-ROM version. We collaborated on the script and structure, and then I worked on the production with Patricia involved at more of a distance. We wanted to produce a work that people could take home, which makes it perhaps too huge and complex for an exhibition context. To see and hear everything in LumpCD would take 6-7 solid hours, but your average exhibition encounter is maybe 10-15 minutes. As for selling CD-ROMs, we’ve sold a few, but it’s tough. There’s no culture for it and it’s difficult to place; it works within a gaming mode, but it’s art and doesn’t have ‘game-play.’ We describe it as a virtual narrative environment.

LumpCD is also quite funny. Can you tell me about your strategic use of humour?

PP When I make these life forms, I believe they’re endearing and quite attractive. I don’t set out to make something repulsive that would shock people. I know some people don’t find them cute, but that’s hard for me to understand. I certainly don’t see the humour in my work as something that detracts from its seriousness. It’s just a way of making difficult ideas more palatable. I struggle in life to find a sense of joy in things. If there are moments in my work when people find joy and humour, that’s a real bonus for me. And I don’t connect accessibility with lowest common denominator.

PH There’s a lot of faux seriousness in contemporary art that’s there to signal its value, depth and profundity. So part of Patricia’s humour is about refusing to work with that particular mode. The work avoids simple moral judgements, and the humour sets something up and then cuts it down a little bit, so that it doesn’t stand on that edifice of seriousness.

PP It’s easier to do something that’s seen as being serious because people accept it right away, they don’t question what you do, they just accept, because they think you must be right. Equally, I feel there’s hardly any irony in my work; there’s sincerity, which people sometimes find hard to deal with, but I would say my work is anti-ironic.

How closely do you follow debates in the scientific community?

PP I keep up and am absolutely vitally interested in it, but really just as a lay person. The Protein Lattice work was inspired by a TV segment; seeing the mouse with the human ear…was so phenomenal it made me think I had to do something.

PH What’s frightening is how little we keep up; we’re not looking anywhere obscure, just New Scientist and The Herald Sun. I feel that it is like catching that little flash that happens and holding it up for a little while, so that it doesn’t disappear into the background noise of the world so quickly. Patricia’s work demonstrates that these bizarre things are not in the future, they’re already happening. In this sense it’s social realism if anything…the current political condition of people living in our world today.

How does the collaborative process work?

PH The filmmaking model is the one that is closest to the way Patricia works. My role is one of many collaborators working towards a conceptual goal that is usually developed by Patricia. It is a collaborative process, but not necessarily democratic!

PP The production of my work requires a team of people. And luckily I’ve a strong association with Peter and Dennis Daniel and everyone else at Drome, who are always credited for the modelling, rendering, editing, video and production work that they do. I tell people straight out that I conceive the work and then bring together the pieces. How do people perceive that? I don’t know, and it doesn’t interest me. If I didn’t have great people working on the projects, it wouldn’t work. I don’t want the ideas to be limited by what I can physically do. The ideas come first.

Do you think your recent international success is related to the ideas being quite universally accessible?

PP Some of my work is very Australian—such as the SO2 series in the carpark with the Holden—which is intriguing for people, but on the whole I’m dealing with international issues that are not specific to the Australian art world. I guess different countries are interested in works for particular reasons; it was interesting that Lima specifically requested The Breathing Room which is a work that looks at the idea of panic, because they thought it related well to their political situation. Plasticology was exhibited in Tokyo even though my work was not known there because Japanese people have a deep interest in the idea of nature.

Finally, does photomedia occupy a special place in your work?

PP My father is a photographer, so it was always around. I was trained in painting so I learnt a lot of skills about composition, light, colour, the formal attributes of images. I started thinking of digital imaging, not photography, in 1994 as it seemed the most appropriate way to deal with ideas of biotechnology and advertising. My practice is conceptual—I use whatever media I think will best express my ideas and therefore I don’t have a lot invested in the idea of photography specifically. I am more interested in art.

Patricia Piccinini is currently exhibiting in Lightness of Being—Contemporary Photographic Art from Australia, Monash University Gallery, Melbourne, May 22-July 7; Superevolution, 2001 Federation Festival, wombat enclosure, Royal Melbourne Zoo, May 11-27

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 19

© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001