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Patricia Piccinini spawned a new breed of adorably grotesque creatures for her first solo show at the Robert Miller Gallery, New York. The artist produced a logical follow-up to We are Family which was exhibited in the 2003 Venice Biennale. Piccinini again captured our attention with a grand and ambivalent enquiry into advanced biological science. Her life-size and hyper-real mutants were the physical and conceptual heart of Nature’s Little Helpers. The drawing, photography and video displayed were eclipsed by the theatricality and stature of these futuristic sculptures. Overall the exhibition seemed crowded by this diverse collection of works and, perhaps due to the dominance of the figures and the installation, made the artist’s intentions too transparent. The technical mastery, subtle perversity and conceptual accessibility of the recent exhibition lends to wide appeal but fails to offer enough of a challenge to the critical imagination.
Nature’s Little Helpers addressed the potential environmental impacts of biotechnology and acutely demonstrated its social, cultural and psychological effects on humanity. The artist explored the future horizons of reproductive technology and medical innovation by designing creatures that functioned as possible biological aids to endangered Australian wildlife. She endowed her assistants with features derived from rodents and hominids to produce familiar yet disturbing forms. The docile and rotund, Surrogate, sat happily while incubating the fetuses of northern hairy nosed wombats that eerily nestled in pouches on its back. One was caught between the compulsion to cuddle the strange little being or to flee from it in fear. This tension clearly unveiled the artist’s intention to play with our ethical conscience as she asked us to tolerate, and even embrace, the monstrosities that science may create.
The show projected very intimate and familial relations between people and engineered creatures. Piccinini blatantly intertwined their existences with the suggestion that humanity will, or can be nurtured by the defects of science. This idea was unmistakably illustrated by the scene of a 21st century baby suckling the breast of an enormous and temporally displaced Neanderthal-like mother. Neighboring this work was the installation, Undivided, which depicted a sleeping toddler who had discarded his teddy bear for a surrogate who snuggles him in his bed. In these instances, Piccinini undoubtedly offers an optimistic vision of future maternal and fraternal bonds between humanity and its genetically engineered progeny.
The most intriguing and dynamic work in the show was, The Embrace. This was a life-size figure of a startled woman whose face was smothered by the affections of a strange, hairless possum-like animal. In this encounter, Piccinini created an atmosphere simultaneously embedded with horror, relief and delight. The creature adopted a physical tactic that mimicked the fatal assault of the terrifying and gruesome extraterrestrials in Alien, which initially suggested that it was attacking the woman. However, its innocent wide eyes immediately contradicted this assumption. The odd animal was in fact clinging to the woman like an insecure child, and in its desire to be loved by a human companion it threatened her life. The Embrace conveyed an oscillating tension between love and fear that exploited our attraction to these emotional states. Her creation of this disturbing scene also exposed the masochistic tendency that fuels the human urge to engage with Horror. The heightened and dissipated terror of this encounter further accentuated Piccinini’s ambivalent position towards future scientific advance. The Embrace was a dexterous allegory of how humanity will be surprised or even stunned by its own creations as they surpass our control. Piccinini presented a work that blatantly confronted this anxiety with a physical demonstration of how we may be forced to accept a relationship with science beyond our expectations.
Patricia Piccinini may produce characters as endearingly palatable as those offered by Disney, but she also delivers an important socio-cultural enquiry into her preferred subject. Although her perverse offspring may be comparable to the darker manifestations of Matthew Barney and the exquisitely detailed sculptures of Ron Mueck, they participate in a very different realm of the imagination. The artist continues to successfully stage exhibitions with weird yet lovable creatures that provoke mixed reactions of revolt, wonder and affection from her audiences.
Nature’s Little Helpers presented us with an opportunity to encounter a future of our design, and also confronted the viewer with the age-old yet prophetic warning: be careful what you wish for.