by Dilpreet BhullarJun 24, 2021
Easier said than done is the feeling of finding oneself at home in a world that one does not belong to. To embrace the other as one's own requires sincerity and courage. The practice of allegiance is manifested in not a single, but several acts of harbouring the outsider. Many would gauge these exchanges through the lens of lopsided performance on the part of the superior against the lesser mortals. Having said that, through the history of art and science there has been a consistent emphasis on the necessity to keep the relationship between the variety of beings in harmony and equality. One such way of doing it is through the practice of attributing the anthropomorphic features to flora, fauna, or even non-living beings. The art practice of the Australian artist, Patricia Piccinini, thrives on the idea of anthropomorphism. The art of making hyperreal sculptures in the hands of Piccinini is a way to forge a relationship between the world of humans and animals that is determined by emotional quotient.
Piccinini's exhibition, Skywhale family – Skywhale and Skywhalepapa at the Tim Fairfax Learning Gallery, National Gallery of Australia, had hot air balloons of height close to the 10-storey. Unlike the whale in the sea, this floated in the sky and Skywhalepapa had multiple babies in his claws. The artist through this Skywhale family attempts to disturb the conventional roles assigned to the mother and the father. Here, the father participates in the daily chores of domestic life. The aspiration for this idea of a moving sculpture in the air comes from Piccinini’s personal experience of watching hot air balloons flying in the open sky through her apartment in the city of Melbourne. Holding the moment as “auspicious”, the artist recollects, “When I was approached for this commission, I made a very conscious decision to approach it as a sculpture rather than as a special shape balloon. I felt it had to fit in with the rest of my practice, both aesthetically and conceptually. I wanted it to be an artwork that took advantage of the opportunities that the balloon form offered.” The humans commonly like to see themselves at the centre of nature, and wonder at the question of “what it is for”. However, Piccinini, with her larger-than-life installation pushes the viewers to see nature just as it “is”, and consider themselves, “lucky enough to be around to see it”.
The source of inspiration for the work Sapling lies in the 300-year-old red gum in the forecourt of a suburban Melbourne petrol station. The local Wurundjeri people and Piccinini’s sister raised the importance of a tree that has survived the colonialization and urbanity only to relentlessly exhale oxygen for humans. The sculpture as a “part-human” and “part-plant” for the Piccinini is an embodiment of the symbiotic relationship between nature and humans. For the artist, her sculptures are not simply an installation open to be viewed and left behind. She insists the sculptures are part of the family and ecosystem to underline the connection between each and everything populating the world. Piccinini states, “Over the years, I have built up a sort of alternative world that exists just beyond the real world we live in. It is strange but familiar at the same time. It exists as moments, objects and images the overlap with the real world in gallery space.”
The hyperreal sculptures, for instance: Sapling and The Dreamer, carry a streak of serenity even if they appear obliquely whimsical. The anatomy of these sculptures marked by eyes, ears and texture are recreated with materials such as silicone, leather, fiberglass, steel, and human hair. Piccinini translates her concepts, first, onto the piece of drawing, later her team realises it into a three-dimensional object through the techniques of hand-sculpted plasticine models, CNC milling and 3D-printing. Lastly, the fabrication process brings into life a concept in the shape of a sculpture. For Piccinini, the world, “where the cultural and the natural - the technological and organic - are ever more intermingled, this wilderness is my symbolic representation of a place where technology has become so natural that it takes on a life of its own.” The all-encompassing role of technology is not just true for the world of art but has swept the science of reproduction in an unprecedented way. For instance, Piccinini’s sculpture Shoeform is a way to creatively lend perspective on the active role of biotechnology and genetic manipulation in human life.
Piccinini acutely charts down the series of meaning — “connection”, “empathy”, “unnamed emotion”, “diversity”, “surrealism”, “wonder”, “storytelling” — in her artist statement that she likes to embed in her works in the hope that viewers too shall be able to string together this array of sentiments while being on this journey of experiencing Piccinini’s works. When the world is still grappling with the pandemic, Piccinini’s art practice reiterates, what should have been a norm before the onset of the pandemic crisis, a seamless relationship between nature, humanity, and beyond.