Confronting. Unpleasant. Strange. These are the kinds of words people often reach for when describing the work of Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini.
Piccinini’s sculptures are made from silicone, fibreglass and human hair. Her works are disturbingly human-like and initially unpleasant to the eye; they blur the boundaries between technology, the environment, animals and humans. The pieces often have the feel of a science experiment that has crossed over into genetic engineering.
“For some people [her work] has been unnerving or confusing,” Peter McKay says.
McKay would know. He’s curator of Curious Affection, a brand new blockbuster exhibition at GOMA. A retrospective of Piccinini’s career thus far, you could argue it’s the gallery’s boldest show to date.
Curious Affection challenges conventional notions of beauty, perfection and the ideal. It invites the viewer to look beyond the strangeness of the art and sense a deeper connection.
“They do take a moment to process,” McKay says. “It’s more about what [the pieces] are doing, reading how they’re feeling. Just wondering why [something] might exist or how that came to exist and what are the terms of that existence.”
Piccinini is the first contemporary Australian artist to present a large-scale exhibition at GOMA. It’s a space McKay says many artists would struggle to fill, let alone transform the way she has. The show takes up the entire ground floor of the gallery and features more than 70 sculptures, photographs, videos and drawings.
The Field (2018) is what most visitors will encounter first, an immersive work of 3000 white flower sculptures perched on stems inside a dark room. Other works include Kindred (2018), an orangutan-like mother holding her young; and Balsana (2009), in which a young girl rests in a yoga pose with a wallaby lying atop her. In the atrium floats Pneutopia (2018), a voluminous, bright-orange inflatable that almost overflows on to the mezzanine above.
Piccinini has referred to her artworks in the past as “catalysts for conversations”. The confrontational nature of the pieces encourages viewers to express themselves in their search for the meaning behind them.
“They create problems in your mind,” McKay says. “So they compel you to think about them, but the intent is a few steps beyond that. That’s just how she gets you in.”
Influenced by science, nature, fiction and the unconscious, Piccinini’s ongoing concern is the social and moral impact of advanced technology on people, animals and the planet. But there’s perhaps a surprising amount of hope in her work; the artist envisioning a society that uses technology to solve problems while also making the world a richer place. Her pieces are designed to tell fables that expand these future possibilities.
“It’s less about a freak show and more reflecting on what kind of reaction you’re having and what you’re thinking about,” McKay says.
Piccinini’s earlier works focus on cloning, stem cells and artificial intelligence – exploring possibilities of how humans may use science in the future in both a responsible and imaginative way. The Stags (2008) is a pair of scooters come to life as deer, representing artificial intelligence gone wild. Piccinini’s newer works are focused on technology such as gene programming.
Even those who find Piccinini’s work hard to stomach would likely agree that Curious Affection fulfils GOMA’s mission to push art forwards.
McKay says the exhibition is a risk that’s paid off for the gallery: “Overwhelmingly people are really taken with the experience,” he says. “I feel like there’s an appetite for this.
“This show is a big leap for Patricia’s practice. I’m really proud we’ve been able to do that.”