All images in this post are copyright Patricia Piccinini http://www.patriciapiccinini.net.
We were in Adelaide on holiday recently, and on a visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia, I was pleased to discover that they had on show a temporary exhibition of the work of Australian hyper-realist sculptor Patricia Piccinini. I have talked here about my fondness for the work of another Australian sculptor Ron Mueck, with whom Piccinini is often compared, so I was keen to see this exhibition of her work.
The similarities with Mueck are in the incredibly detailed techniques and use of materials which create amazingly realistic skin and hair. Having said that, however, the similarity between the two artists does not extend to their subject matter or artistic concerns.
Mueck uses his sculpture to explore character and the human condition. So, in his Ghost we are made painfully aware of adolescent awkwardness and embarrassment. In his Wild Man we are made to feel the contradiction between the huge scale of the naked wild man and his evident anxiety and alarm. And so on. It’s interesting, too, that Mueck uses changes of scale, making his sculptures either significantly larger or significantly smaller than real size, to avoid the uncomfortable regions of the “uncanny valley”. Piccinini, on the other hand, plunges enthusiastically into that valley and deliberately exploits our unease.
So here I need to define “uncanny valley”. Here’s Wikipedia:
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis … which holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.
No doubt I am twisting this definition somewhat to make it apply to hyper-real sculptures of humans (or of animal-human hybrids) rather than robots, but I think the same reaction does occur. It’s the shudder we experience when we see deformity, something which moves away from our deeply imprinted sense of what we consider normal in human appearance.
After touring the Piccinini exhibition in Adelaide, I came away greatly impressed by Piccinini’s technique, but also significantly disturbed. Clearly this is Piccinini’s intention. She is on record as wanting to express her concerns about the direction of genetic engineering, human modification, and the possible creation of animal-human hybrids.
Piccinini’s sculptures disturb us by mingling human features with those of animals, and then questioning what would be our relationship with such hybrids. For example, Big Mother is an ape-like creature modified to become a human wet-nurse. Her face seems full of grief as she suckles a human child, and the packed bags at her feet seem to indicate some intention to flee with the child.
The New Family (image at the top of this post) shows a pig-human mother with a litter of infants, perhaps designed to provide organs for transplant to humans . It’s the very human features on all of these individuals which promote the disturbance, the feeling of disgust or rejection which is characteristic of the “uncanny valley”.
The Long Awaited shows a human boy cradling an aged, bizarre creature, with a single fused lower limb, perhaps at the end of its life. Was it the child’s nanny? His nurse? His pet? We cannot know. The human child is convincingly rendered, but not perhaps as lifelike as Mueck’s work. But that is irrelevant – the focus is on the creature, not the human.
There were also some unpleasant videos and a large diorama, all of which made the hair rise on the back of my neck.
All of these works are upsetting in various ways, so that one could not say that looking at them or considering them is a comfortable or uplifting experience. Yet, strangely, there were was a school group there, of primary age children, busily creating their own models or else filling in a Piccinini coloring book. I found this really odd. It would be interesting to know what these children made of the exhibition.
On the other hand, not all of Piccinini’s work at the exhibition fell into the “uncanny valley”. There were also several amusing works where Piccinini treats motor cars or motor scooters as though they were living creatures, for example, “The Stags” appears to show two mutated Vespa scooters in fierce battle.
The quality of the workmanship in these sculptures is exceptionally high – one would swear that these were real products of the Vespa factory.
So, to sum up, in general I was pleased that I saw the Piccinini exhibition, but I did come away from it feeling uncomfortable and ill at ease, and I guess that is the way that Piccinini wanted it.
You can see more of her work here: http://www.patriciapiccinini.net. All images on this page are from that site, are the copyright of the creator, and are reproduced here purely for purposes of review and criticism.