Patricia Piccinini is an artist interested in the relationship between humans and non-humans, the natural and the artificial, science and storytelling. Working with silicone, fiberglass, nylon and human hair, she molds hyper-real worlds in which humans and nature become bio-technologically fused in new and intimate ways. Her hybrid sculptures remind us that we are inherently part of our environment, despite historic efforts to place ourselves above it.
Piccinini imagines how technology may dismantle our perceptions, and creates a space for viewers to think and feel through traditional divides. By contemplating new kinds of families, groupings and relationships with the nonhuman, she imagines a symbiotic future for technology and nature. As the artist insists, we need to construct new ways of being in a world where "technology has become so natural that it takes on a life of it's own."
We caught up with Patricia Piccinini to find out more about her artistic practice and her first solo exhibition in Sweden, titled Embracing the Future.
When did your fascination with challenging definitions, such as 'natural' and 'artificial', begin?
I have been looking at these ideas since I left art school in the mid 1990s. I have always been interested in bodies and politics and disrupting our dichotomous construction of the world. Over the years I have looked at these ideas with regards to medicine and science, and now it provides an interesting way to look at issues around the environment, biodiversity and sustainability.
What is your personal relationship with the 'natural' world? And how does this influence your artistic practice?
I am very much an urban person. I grew up in a working class family and I never had many opportunities to interact with nature or animals or the natural world. However, I don't think you need to be a backwoodsman to respect nature. I don't need to interact with Orangutans to know that they should be protected. In fact, I think they should be left alone.
Certainly, I have had some amazing experiences in nature and with animals, but that's just my good fortune. I don't believe Nature is here for us, to provide us with resources. I think we need nature much more than it needs us, and I'm just grateful for the world I get to live in. That being said, even throwing the word 'nature' around like that feels a bit wrong. Trying to define where 'nature' stops and we begin becomes increasingly difficult the closer you look at it.
Regarding your upcoming exhibition Embracing the Future, how does the format of a solo show transform the way you present your work, and the viewers' experience of it?
In a solo exhibition I get the chance to create an entire world for the viewer to explore. It enables me to create an overriding narrative that connects the disparate works. I hope that I can take the viewer out of the everyday world and immerse them in a world that is adjacent to ours - strange but also recognizable.
Your artworks appear both born and made. They evoke the tinkerings of biotechnological labs, of experimentation and synthetic biology. At the same time we see in them a sense of familiarity and naturalness that we recognize. What does this synthesis mean for you?
That is the very shading of the artificial into the natural that is at the core of my work. It is the distinction that I refuse to accept. How do we imagine nature now in a way that doesn't deny our place in it and our impact on it. We are part of nature. Ironically, that is made all the more clear by something like climate change. We are part of nature, a force of nature, like a cyclone. We need to get past this counterproductive nature/culture thing and start to think about what sort of world do we want to live in, and how might we achieve that. There cannot be a return to an imagined pristine nature of prehistory, not one that includes humans anyway, but does that mean we want to live in a world reduced to a small number of industrialised species? How can we find a way to 'go forward together with other animals', as Donna Harraway puts it.
Ideas about family, networks and relationships often frame your work. How can relational ways of thinking and being transform our experience of the world? Particularly when we live in quite an individualistic culture.
I think the individualism of contemporary western culture is one of the key problems of our age. I think the world is deeply interconnected, and whether you look at it in terms of genetics or ecology, the idea that individuals, or even humans in general, can somehow separate themselves out from everything is both ridiculous and counter-productive. It is the separating out of humans from nature that allows us to imagine the world and creatures around us as 'resources' to be 'exploited'. The idea of individualistic culture is that our own happiness is justification enough for anything we do, and that our responsibility is to ourselves rather than others. I feel very differently. I think we have a responsibility to those around us - people, creatures, trees or whatever - and we need to find a way to happiness that does not ignore those responsibilities. It suggests that compromise in relationships is not a failure but a success, and I think that is ultimately more productive.
You have said that you want people to go on a journey from aversion and disgust to empathy and closeness when they the creatures in your work. You strike this balance in wonderful and emotive ways. Are emotions and empathy our most important tools to carry into the future?
I think they are vital. Again not in a dichotomous way. It's not about abandoning the rational for the emotional, it’s more about acknowledging that there is no 'pure rationality'. There are always emotions, it's just a question of whether we acknowledge them or not. Empathy, or perhaps more accurately compassion, are vital tools that arise from when we grant value and agency to others. My creatures are intended to stand in for many sorts of 'others', and the relationship we can construct with these others, these strangers, in the safe space of the gallery can be a model for how we go on to interact with all of the others we share the world with. It's interesting to me that we have the idea of 'xenophobia' but we don't have a word for it's opposite: an emotion to describe the process whereby we warm to something that we are initially disturbed by. Maybe if we did we might find it easier to do.
Is it the responsibility of artists to help shape biomedical ethics and the development of new technologies? If so, how do you do this?
The short answer to that two-part question is: definitely, and I wish I knew! I do think that with art we have the opportunity to create spaces where people can come into contact with new ideas, or new ways of looking at the world, which might prompt them to look at things differently. I certainly don't think that, as an artist, I have all the right answers. However, I do hope that I can ask the right questions. Artists can tell stories that help us to understand the world. Art can connect regular people with ideas from other disciplines, and involve them in the discussion. Artists can be another voice, one that isn't constrained by pragmatics or practical considerations.
Does the alternative world you present reflect the world you would like to see?
Yes and no. Some works are definitely very hopeful and optimistic. I do think you have to model the impossible positive world that you would like to live in, just to create the idea of it. In other cases the work is the opposite of what I would like for myself and my children. Sometimes it’s also about looking at how people can do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Ultimately the world is always going to be complex and contradictory, and I hope that my work can reflect that while still presenting a positive model to encourage change.