patricia piccinini: lumps and stem cells

As you enter the Monash University Museum of Art, you wonder who would have the audacity to let a child loose among Patricia Piccinini's latest sculptural creations. Closer inspection reveals this unnervingly life-like model is part of the artwork. Sitting cross-legged on the gallery floor, the girl clutches one pink and fleshy creature, while palling another. These biomorphic forms are the stem cell products that lend their name to the artwork's title.

Still Life with Stem Cells is situated in the cultural moment where new technologies, particularly medical technologies, erode the differences between the natural and the artificial. Piccinini's response to stem cell research is ambivalent, negotiating the tension between technology as a futuristic utopia and a dystopian nightmare. The forms she creates are simultaneously irresistible and disturbing.

These fleshy lumps betray the familiarity of the body, resplendent with wrinkles, hairs and the gentle folding of skin. Yet they are not like any known organism. The appeal of stem cells lies in their possibility, their potential to become any shape. Each form is different, perhaps suggesting the failed attempts of scientists to grow new organs from stem cells. Equally plausible is the notion that these creatures are not the products of science gone awry, but totally new forms.

The collapse between reality and artifice is the prevalent theme throughout Piccinini's work. Curator Linda Michael's decision to exhibit Still Life with Stem Cells, alongside works from Piccinini's Lump series (1995), illuminates the artist's ongoing concerns with boundary play. Displaying these works together functions to chart the development of both Piccinini as an artist, and the creatures she creates. In Lumpland and LumpCD, the LUMP™ creatures appear as digital constructs - prototypes for non-human life forms. They do not leave the two-dimensional space of the picture frame or the computer screen. In Still Life with Stem Cells we experience the evolution of these forms into three-dimensional sculptures that appear to be real.

The artificial world of technology is made normal, a part of our everyday existence. There is a compulsion to touch, to bend down and examine these creatures up close. A carpeted floor renders the sterility of the white-walled gallery homely and welcoming. Carpet invokes a sense of domesticity, establishing the scene as a place that is non-threatening; a place that invites the viewer to sit down and play.

It is a response anticipated by the gallery staff. A sign asks patrons to refrain from touching the irresistibly touchable stem cell creatures. Such reactions are consistent with Piccinini's description of the project. She wants us to feel empathy toward these artificially created creatures, and to sense that what we are experiencing is real.

This naturalisation of artifice is not, however, the function of myth that Roland Barthes has described. Still Life with Stem Cells does not obscure the dangers of biotechnological practice to illustrate an ideal reality. Instead, artifice and nature collapse. We can no longer discern between an original and its reproduction, good and bad, truth and illusion.

Patricia Piccinini will represent Australia at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, Still Life with Stem Cells will be included in the exhibition.